CIO view | Veolia UK’s push forward with digital acceleration

Like many organisations, the world did not stop spinning for waste, water and energy management company Veolia UK during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this interview, Stuart Stock, CIO at Veolia UK, tells me about the company’s move to the cloud, its rapid digital acceleration and ambitious plans for machine learning and automation.

Image placeholder

Can you start by telling us a little bit about your background and how you progressed into the role of CIO?

I’m Stuart Stock, Chief Information Officer for Veolia UK covering the UK and Ireland. I’ve been with Veolia UK for 18 years now. Actually, my work anniversary was on 3 March just gone. I’ve been here quite a long time. I started as an accountant, and I moved over to work on data and business intelligence before taking on a wider role in IT about 10 years ago. At the time I was responsible for IT for the whole of the waste division, and then we converged all of our divisions – energy, water and waste – into one Veolia UK business unit a few years ago. And that’s when I took on the role of CIO.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, you have been able to push forward with digital acceleration. How do you see the shift towards digital during such a challenging period?

Without a doubt, it has definitely sped up the process of digital adoption. I think the fact that we can see consumer behaviour change even in our own home, under lockdown and wary of infection. We’ve switched to e-commerce for everything from grocery shopping to financial transactions – delivery The cloud is absolutely fundamental and instrumental to our wider strategy. In 2018, we set off on a mission to transform the business, and it was a three-year plan that we put together; we termed it ‘the digital summit’. Along the route to the digital summit, we set a milestone to move to the cloud and remediate all of our applications or our legacy applications to SaaS and PaaS type solutions. This vision was to allow our workforce the freedom to work securely anywhere, any time and on any device. Obviously, we started this work quite early, before the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, unfortunately, we had a couple of legacy applications that were on-premise, and we had to wrap them into an app streaming service. These are the applications that Workday is replacing when we’ve rolled that out for both finance and HR, so they’ll be gone. Following on from this, later this year, we’ll be able to close down our data centre. So the cloud was a key part of our success journey. When the lockdown was announced services are now the preferred choice over travelling to a store to pick something up. This has helped with the digital dexterity in our workforce too. We’ve seen our teams become more accepting of IT solutions and change. That’s allowed us to really target some of the mundane processes that we have within a business and begin automating those processes with IT solutions to free up valuable time.

With valuable time freed up, our employees have more time to provide innovative solutions to our core services and help the world to combat things that affect us all like reducing carbon and combating climate change. I think this is a huge testament to where we’ve had that digital experience at home and we’ve taken it into the workplace. One thing I should mention too is, when we went live with Workday on 7 April, it marked the first time 9,000 of our employees will be using the Workday application to access their digital payslip. This is an amazing milestone for us as a company, and it’ll help support our own drive on sustainability – eliminating paper where we’ve now got a digital solution.

“[Our] vision was to allow our workforce the freedom to work securely anywhere, any time and on any device.”

Stuart Stock CIO at Veolia UK

How important is cloud computing and everything that it brings in helping organisations pivot to change and operate with more agility?

The cloud is absolutely fundamental and instrumental to our wider strategy. In 2018, we set off on a mission to transform the business, and it was a three-year plan that we put together; we termed it ‘the digital summit’. Along the route to the digital summit, we set a milestone to move to the cloud and remediate all of our applications or our legacy applications to SaaS and PaaS type solutions. This vision was to allow our workforce the freedom to work securely anywhere, any time and on any device.

Obviously, we started this work quite early, before the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, unfortunately, we had a couple of legacy applications that were on-premise, and we had to wrap them into an app streaming service. These are the applications that Workday is replacing when we’ve rolled that out for both finance and HR, so they’ll be gone. Following on from this, later this year, we’ll be able to close down our data centre. So the cloud was a key part of our success journey. When the lockdown was announced and the work-from-home instructions were set by the government as well, on that same day we were about to send all 4,000 of our workers home, including our customer service teams and the telephone set-up as well. That in itself demonstrates how agile you can be if you’re a cloud-ready business.

The CIO role is constantly evolving in line with the changing needs of the business. How has your role shifted over the last few years and how do you see it evolving in the future?

I’d say in terms of what we’re doing differently today, I think we’ve incorporated this culture of ‘learn it all’ across the team. So, IT was, or it was within Veolia UK, very much the people used to have a ‘know it all’ sort of philosophy. With the cloud and SaaS, PaaS products and solutions, we need to have that continuous learning approach, and that’s why we brought this ‘learn it all’ approach into the team. I think, for me, the technology and capabilities of the team are really at the stage where – it’s a bit cliché, but we’re at that stage where anything is possible. And I would say, because of that, prioritisation is probably my biggest challenge I have to overcome on a daily basis. That’s because we’re a team that’s already central to business innovation and I want to build on this to allow the team’s ambitions to grow with the business too. But obviously, with that, the greatest challenge we all face as CIOs is resources in terms of the people and funding big projects. With constant collaboration and cooperation from the business, I always have to make sure we’re supporting the right projects all the time, to enable the best possible outcome.

In terms of how the role is developing, I think keeping the lights on is becoming easier, and therefore, we can turn ourselves to innovation or turn our attention to innovative ideas. This means, again, as a department, we can become really embedded within operations and therefore equally embedded in the customer’s experience. We’re involved in projects now where the team is blended between IT and operations. And I think going forward, there’ll be a greater crossover of skills on both sides which will allow us to move faster on projects because everyone will have that joint understanding and responsibility.

C-suite collaboration and partnerships with other leaders always seems to come up as a high priority when we talk to CIOs. Do you see collaboration between IT and other areas of the business increasing and how can you be a good partner?

We have a team that I think already has a very close working relationship with my C-suite colleagues. What we did was create a digital transformation team that’s dedicated to the different divisions we have within the business. They’re embedded within operations, and they work on digital solutions and engagement directly with operational staff and our customers and clients as well. I think it’s important as an IT department to have the same vision as the business, and therefore, we’ve aligned our own objectives with our operational colleagues. For example, the team behind our online sales tool that we’ve gone live with over the last few months: we’ve set them exactly the same sales targets as the marketing department have. So, aligning those goals and objectives is key to ensure everyone is working towards the same vision, and it helps with that prioritisation of projects I was talking about earlier as well.

The topic of remote working and the model businesses will adopt is a hot subject right now. How do you see that working out in the future?

I think it’ll be a pure hybrid. There’s a time and a place for face-to-face meetings and going into the office, and I think it’s important to keep that dynamic – not just for social interaction, but those situations where you need to set up a war room for a lastminute push on a project or you need an innovation day with your team to brainstorm and generate new ideas together. I don’t think these scenarios are as impactful when they’re done digitally. If you combine occasional collaborative office work with a work-from-home policy, I think that’s the most compelling situation for our employees and potential employees. As a business you’d be at a disadvantage if you don’t have that offering for the workforce going forward, people want that work-life balance.

How do you see the emergence of automation and machine learning now they’re starting to move into mainstream business? And how are they going to impact IT and the broader business in the future?

I think both trends have been in the making for longer than the pandemic. And for us, automation and machine learning are some of the areas where we want, as I said earlier, to remove those non-value-adding activities that take up the critical time of our employees. This allows for our teams to be making more strategic business decisions. Our employees really are the experts, and by automating everyday tasks we’re freeing time up for ambition – to really drive forward more strategic decisions. And this is where we see the biggest impact and the biggest positive change. Essentially you’re making their work experience a richer experience, and that’s key for retention and attraction as well. We have a number of different examples of machine learning models we’ve built here with our data science team. One of the most effective models has been the collection of data from the 50 different data sets within our systems into a machine learning model that then allows us to calculate a customer’s propensity score. And any sales rep or customer service agent can see that score and build on a customer’s experience.

 

“The final milestone that I am so keen to achieve this year and tick off the list is closing down our colocation data centre so we’re fully public cloud.”

Stuart Stock CIO at Veolia UK

What are the key things that you’re focusing on in the post-pandemic period that we’re about to enter?

I think cybersecurity is always a priority for obvious reasons, and I’m sure that’s the same for every CIO out there, so I don’t need to elaborate on that too much. In terms of the to-do list, I’m at the point where I want to continue our automation journey – building up that intellectual property I was talking about earlier with more machine learning models to differentiate ourselves from the competition. I think as part of that, the expansion and the capture of additional data into our own data platform is another key focus for us this year and in the future. That will help us, as an organisation, to make better decisions with more insight into issues we’re already aware of or closely looking at. That’s particularly useful for an organisation like us. We have 14,000 employees. We’re a company that spans across energy, water and waste. We touch millions of homes across the UK with our services. Our operational data is critical in helping us build that wider picture of all of our solutions and services. The final milestone that I am so keen to achieve this year and tick off the list is closing down our colocation data centre so we’re fully public cloud. This will allow us to continue to become more agile and innovative, and deliver more solutions to our customers and employees so we can really drive that vision and purpose to being the leader in ecological transformation.

More Reading