Overcoming ‘Pilotitis’ and taking digital transformation to scale in utilities

In a recent discussion on AI and digitalisation in the UK energy sector held at the Palace of Westminster, Jon Z Bentley explored the concept of ‘pilotitis’ – the tendency for utilities to get stuck in a cycle of small-scale pilots that never progress to full-scale implementation. This stagnation is a significant hurdle for the utilities industry, which has been slower to digitise compared to sectors like finance or telecommunications.

Failing to digitise operations and systems clearly hinders the ability of the sector to optimise efficiency and effectiveness, thereby limiting value creation. For utility companies, the shift to digitisation could reduce operating expenses by up to 25%, funding much needed upgrades in ageing infrastructure, without asking for the public to dip into their already stretched pockets. Additionally, improvements in key performance areas like safety, reliability, customer satisfaction, and regulatory compliance could range from 20-40%.

At FYLD, we are strong believers in the transformative power of digital solutions for utilities. We understand the challenges outlined by Bentley, and we are committed to helping utilities overcome ‘pilotitis’ and achieve successful digital transformations.

FYLD at the Palace of Westminster

Why do utilities struggle with digital transformation?

Bentley highlights several reasons why utilities are lagging in digital adoption:

  • Technological Reluctance: Due to regulatory hurdles, including procurement regimes which make experimentation at scale very difficult, the critical nature of operations, and security concerns, utilities have been slow to embrace new technologies.
  • Investment and Infrastructure Challenges: Upgrading ageing infrastructure to support digital transformations is perceived to require significant investment to even get started.
  • Cultural Barriers: The risk-averse culture within the sector, often driven by the public and essential nature of utility services, can hinder innovation.
  • Reactive Management: Unforeseen challenges can lead to reactive management styles, stifling proactive digital initiatives.

The high cost of ‘Pilotitis’

While utilities may be conducting numerous pilot programs, these initiatives fail to deliver the significant value that digital transformation promises. This ‘pilotitis’ can lead to:

  • Wasted Resources: Time, money, and effort are expended on pilots that are not scaled up to achieve their potential, consuming resources that could have been allocated to more impactful initiatives.
  • Missed Opportunities and Hindered Innovation: As utilities lag behind in adopting broader digital transformations, they risk missing out on efficiencies and enhancements that could significantly improve their operations and customer services. Additionally, a culture hesitant to escalate pilot projects discourages risk-taking and limits exploration of innovative solutions.
  • Challenges in Scalability and Representation: Pilot projects, often limited in scope, may not adequately represent the complexities of full-scale operations, making it difficult to predict real-world performance and integration challenges. With pilots often run by more junior team members, the opportunity is missed to bring in experienced colleagues who have the expertise to design to be successful regardless of constraints and challenges.
  • Resource Constraints and Integration Challenges: Limited by resources, pilot projects might not thoroughly develop or test solutions, leading to potential issues in later stages. Moreover, even successful pilots can face significant hurdles integrating with existing systems, necessitating adjustments to fit within the broader infrastructure.
  • Change Management: Transitioning from a pilot to full-scale deployment may involve substantial changes in processes and workflows, which can challenge the existing company culture and require robust change management strategies.

Moving from ‘Pilotitis’ to successful digital transformation

Discussions led by experts have emphasised the need for a strategic approach to break the  cycle of ‘Pilotitis’ in utilities. 

One such approach can be seen through the work at FYLD with Southern Water, where in just three months, the use of AI-powered tools facilitated over 44,000 site assessments. This initiative helped significantly reduce pollution incidents and improve safety management, demonstrating the potential impact of effectively scaled digital strategies.

SGN is another example of how to pilot effectively. After a short, three-month pilot involving 150 personnel, SGN rapidly expanded FYLD deployment to all 750 operatives in their dig and fix operations. Within just 12 months, FYLD’s technology was leveraged across SGN’s entire field workforce.

In tackling ‘Pilotitis’, the industry will benefit  from dismantling operational silos and building robust partnerships across the sector. Such collaboration will enhance the effectiveness and scope of digital strategies, ensuring that solutions are not only comprehensive but also drive innovation across the entire sector. It will enable utilities to learn from each other, and build confidence in respect of solutions ready for deployments without timely and costly pilots.

Utilising modular systems that are adaptable and expandable, along with API-driven integrations, will ensure  smooth interoperability with existing IT infrastructures, aligning with best practices for digital transformation that advance beyond the pilot phase.

FYLD: Your partner in overcoming ‘Pilotitis’

At FYLD, we have a proven track record of helping utilities overcome ‘pilotitis’ and achieve successful digital transformations. We work collaboratively with our clients to develop and implement digital strategies that deliver tangible results.

Our leadership team, including industry veteran and CEO Shelley Copsey, is deeply committed to digital transformation in the utilities sector. “At FYLD, we’re passionate about helping our clients navigate this journey and achieve lasting success. The potential for digital transformation in the utilities sector is undeniable. By fostering collaboration across the industry and prioritising solutions that integrate seamlessly with existing infrastructure, we can move beyond the limitations of ‘pilotitis’ and unlock a future of enhanced efficiency, reliability, and customer satisfaction for utilities.”

We also had the opportunity to gain insights from Laura Sandys, a respected expert in the energy sector known for her work on integrating digital strategies with traditional energy systems at the House of Lords event. Laura shared her perspective on how utilities can harness digital solutions for sustainable growth. She emphasises the importance of a holistic approach that leverages insights across various industries: “In the digital age, the key to an efficient and effective utilities sector lies in collaboration and shared knowledge. Utilities, energy producers, and distributors must break free from operating in silos. By leveraging insights and focusing on collaborative innovation, we can transform challenges into scalable solutions, ensuring digital technologies are both effective and sustainable.”

FYLD is committed to partnering with utilities on their digital transformation journeys. If you are interested in learning more about how we can help your organisation overcome ‘pilotitis’ and achieve your digital goals, book a free demo with us today.