Creativity can make our energy sector a world-leading innovator
At Downstream 2015, the energy sector’s annual strategic forum, our CIO John Ascroft addressed 160 delegates over dinner. Here’s his take on creative innovation, and the possibilities it can open up in our world-leading energy industry.
Like many of New Zealand’s energy companies, Jade has a strong and proud heritage in technology and engineering. We’ve been in ICT for 38 years now, which marks us out as a long-standing survivor in a field full of short-lived competitors.
Our longevity - ICT years are like dog-years - comes from our ability to keep innovating, and keep finding new and better ways to innovate. Recently we’ve been mashing up creative right-brain thinking with ICT’s more traditional technical and analytical left-brain approach.
This change became obvious when the centre of our customer work changed from systems to people. Today new work begins with user experience experts and designers, rather than business analysts and systems analysts.
What’s even more interesting to me is making a similar switch at the strategic level: applying creative design thinking to what we’re doing as a company, rather than just how we’re doing it.
A good example has been an engagement with the University of Auckland Elam School of Fine Arts. Working with Elam, we run workshops that involve not only industry and technology people, but also fine arts graduates like dancers, sculptors, and painters. And that’s a really interesting experience for us, for the artists, and for the customers and developers who come along to the workshops. We’re going to keep working with Elam to see what more we can do to blend our company’s technical background with their creative nous.
Creative thinking works for companies and their customers.
We’re not the only ones convinced that business and technology need more creative thinking. IBM have published a Global CEO Study of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries, asking which skills are most important for success in today’s increasingly uncertain, complex and volatile business world. The top-ranking skill is creativity.
When we look at the electricity industry, and hear executives in forums like the Downstream Leaders’ Panel, there’s a lot of focus on improving customer engagement. That’s a critical area where we can look at parallels from other industries.
Take the financial sector, where a lot of digital start-ups are attacking main street banks. These nimble, customer-focused start-ups aren’t weighed down by the same overheads as the big players, and can cherry-pick customers. They see themselves as digital businesses in the finance industry, rather than financial companies with a digital face. Their success proves the value of being ‘digital first’. Today’s business opportunities are all driven by digital.
Digital isn’t only upsetting the supply side, either. The demand side has seen the rise of “the PlayStation Generation” of customers. Their expectations of digital interactions come from experiences built by creatives, not analysts. It’s no wonder that websites or interactions designed without creative or customer input makes them recoil in horror.
The right technology increases customer stickiness.
Looking to another industry, omnichannel operations are hot in retail. Customers, whether dealing with web, mobile, email, call centres, or physical visits to your business expect you to know everything they’ve done, whatever channel they did it in. They expect to be able to start something in one channel and finish it in another. They expect that when you deal with them, you know everything. All your systems need to talk to each other.
This means that data needs to be the basis of your customer conversations. The digital side of your business is integral to the entire way you talk with and serve customers. Manual processes aren’t good enough. Systems need to be smooth and integrated, so that for the customer it all just works. Getting that right leads to deeper customer relationships, and lets people make good decisions now and get an immediate response from you. When customers feel that you understand them, they want to stay with you.
Creative innovation comes from a mix of skills.
Creative innovation has a huge role to play in getting the customer experience right. It’s about stepping back from the problem, and applying the sort of design thinking that companies like Jade are bringing into the ICT industry. The concepts of creative innovation go beyond creativity and ambidextrous thinking. They include teamwork, user-centeredness, empathy, curiosity, and my personal favourite - optimism. The world can be a great place!
To workshop and design your best stuff you need a mix of people, not just analytical minds asking what you can pull out of a particular system. Look beyond the system and ask, what do users want?
Running new ideas with users puts your team in an iterative cycle, starting with the problem definition (from the user’s point of view, not yours). Brainstorm how to solve that, then prototype and try temporary solutions, then iterate back round again. Keep trying ideas and testing them. User involvement is key to all of this.
Ultimately you’ll do a better job of finding the root problem, canvassing solutions, and making elegant designs - all in an iterative manner.
Design combines elegance and function.
When we talk about design we often think about elegance and beauty, but that has to be in the context of functionality and usability. It’s regularly said that form follows function, and that’s never been more true. Something beautiful but functionally useless is no good.
Goethe famously said that “architecture is frozen music”. I love that quote. With the small handicap of living in the 18th century, he couldn’t extend his thoughts to ICT. But I believe we can equally see “frozen music” in Solution Architecture and Systems Architecture.
ICT should creatively express your brand and your company. It should delight, empower, and improve your staff and customers’ lives. And if it doesn’t, you’ve found something to work on.
When we get technology right, it’s just obviously right. People love it. It fulfills needs that they may not even be aware they had. It works because it’s customer centred, empathetic, and it solves a real problem or pain point. There’s a reason that Apple make more money from the iPhone than Microsoft does in its entirety.
New Zealand’s already a leader, and this is our next opportunity.
This is a rapidly changing market with keen, clever competitors. There’s a lot to admire about our country’s energy sector, and we’re proud to be part of it. At Downstream, Minister Simon Bridges said that NZ is world-leading in terms of the electricity market’s competitive structure, which I believe. We’re number two or three in renewable energy. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t also lead the globe in its supporting technology.
Creative innovation can help make that a reality.