If you don't fail, you aren't innovating: How to keep tech staff engaged and customers happy

How the head of data and analytics at British Gas Connected Homes is keeping staff engaged and customers happy.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Jim Anning, head of data and analytics at British Gas Connected Homes.
Image: British Gas
Finding and retaining staff with in-demand tech skills is one of the hardest jobs for tech executives, and some firms are already taking proactive steps. Take Jim Anning, who is head of data and analytics at British Gas Connected Homes, a specialist unit that has been set up to investigate the use of big data and smart technology.

Anning recognises the hype surrounding big data and related areas, such as the Internet of Things and wearable technology, is cacophonous. So, what has Anning learnt from his experiences at Connected Homes and how can other digital leaders apply some of these lessons in their own firms? Here, he offers four pieces of advice.

1. Be entrepreneurial and open to change

Working with a startup culture within the wider British Gas organisation, Anning says he and his team have been given the freedom to innovate. Not many blue chip organisations would be prepared to take such a hands-off approach. But Anning says this is paying dividends, even when things do not turn out as he might have expected.

"If you can't point to failures, you're not doing very much innovation," he says. "When we start playing with developments, we have a green, amber, and red code. Red is about getting into a market quickly and getting dirty; amber means the project is ready for testing; and green means we're happy to go to production. That small amount of structure gives developers the license to experiment."

He says the far-sighted approach to innovation and entrepreneurship from senior executive sponsors is allowing the Connected Homes team to establish a strong foothold in a range of advanced technological areas. Across all these initiatives, big data - and the scientists that make the most of information - play a crucial role.

"No one can be quite sure how all these areas will develop," he says. Such openness means workers who are looking to work in data science will need to have an eclectic skills base. Anning says they will have to demonstrate the ability to work as generalists across a range of technology and business areas.

2. Find great people and keep them interested

Getting people to think in the right way is just one concern. Anning recognises that many of his IT leadership peers are struggling to find high quality data scientists and analytical specialists. So, what is the key to Anning's approach?

"Energy's interesting to people - it's something we all use," he says and "we also have a fantastic environment. The people I recruit are entrepreneurial fast-learners with a solid technical background. We're having a great time doing some innovative stuff."

Anning says the specific elements of the data scientist - creating the algorithm, taking feedback, and tweaking the mathematics - are highly skilled. He says CIOs who are struggling to find data scientists can draw on help organisations such as S2DS, a specialist organisation that runs a five-week workshop to train analytical PhD students and scientists in the techniques of data science.

In his own organisation, Anning says he is fortunate to be able to draw on some great internal talent. And he still has big plans for his team. "It's a small outfit dedicated to the work we do," he says.

3. Create projects that make a difference to customer service

The Connected Homes team is looking at a number of key areas, such as helping British Gas customers to make the most of the active heating technology Hive. Another area of development covers smart meter technology and attempts to give consumers more granular detail about their energy use.

"We're building our data science capability to give something more intelligent to our customers in terms of service," says Anning. His key aims include allowing customers to compare their energy use, and providing an interface that gives useful feedback, such as hints and tips.

"We want to provide a granular understanding of data so that we can be more transparent about how people consume power," he says. The key, says Anning, will be the '10 second data' trials that are currently being run by his Connected Homes team.

While it might take a day or more to get feedback and collect information from traditional smart meters, Anning is looking at how his organisation could make a shift to real-time reporting. His aim would be to measure data and create useful knowledge within 10 seconds.

Anning outlines one potential application: "A really compelling proposition is for a connected customer to leave their home and for our technology to send an automated message to their phone saying they might have left the oven on, because no one's at home and lot of energy is still being consumed."

So, how close is that reality? "That's an aspiration - we're not there now," says Anning. "But it's why technologies like Apache Cassandra's open source database are exciting. They allow your organisation to move from basic reporting to real-time information."

4. Keep thinking of how to push the organisation forwards

Other exciting projects are in the offing, as well. Anning talks about the potential of cutting edge technologies, like machine learning and artificial intelligence. "When you're trying to break down energy use, it's important to have a model that allows you to pick out patterns," he says.

He points to work around Hive, where the Connected Homes team has used machine learning to solve connection concerns. The in-house developed program analyses the quality of radio signals and learns where wireless connection issues might persist. The machine-learning program, in effect, automatically detects problems from pre-existing patterns.

"We then email the customer and tell them that we think they might have a connection problem," says Anning. "We send them a signal booster, often before they complain or even notice they have an issue. We're using information and technology to be as proactive as possible."

His aim, just as it ever was, is to engage with his peers across British Gas and use advanced forms of technology to help the organisation meet its objectives. "We don't talk about 'the business' - our technology people don't think in terms of binary divides," he says. "We all have a stake in the business; technology is absorbed within the wider organisation and its achievements."

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