Centrica: Evergreen technology for field users
British energy multinational Centrica operates brands such as British Gas in the UK, Bord Gáis in Ireland and Direct Energy in the US and Canada. Befitting its history, which stretches back over 200 years, the company still maintains all of London’s gas lamps. Its technological credentials, however, are proven by such facets as its smart home subsidiary Hive. Employing around 31,000 people, part of its work as an energy service and supplier involves sending engineers to perform duties such as boiler repair and servicing, and smart meter installation. Joanne Rose, Head of Mobile User Computing at Centrica, is responsible for fulfilling the technological needs of teams in the field. That work is continuous, necessarily moving with the pace of technological change, as Rose explains. “We've transformed our field workforce digitally over the last 20 years. Currently, digital transformation for us is about continually making sure that our fieldworkers have got the most up-to-date technology and software. What we're doing is setting the scene for our field workforce to be on the latest products and for them to be kept up-to-date.”
To carry out that work, Rose has found the introduction of new IT systems invaluable. “We’ve rolled out Windows 10 right across the organisation. One of the reasons that Windows 10 has been so important is because we have the Evergreen solution behind it. We will never be too far behind the latest operating system version that Microsoft is providing.” That escape from incremental and periodic upgrades extends to Centrica’s embrace of cloud technologies such as Office 365. “We use OneDrive for file storage along with the Office 365 tools like Excel, Word, Teams and PowerPoint,” says Rose. “From a user experience point of view, that Office 365 rollout has really transformed Centrica. We have the full suite and we're constantly adding new applications and features.”
Centrica’s field workers have benefited in numerous ways, starting from the implementation of Centrica’s Windows 10 systems. “We have around 8,000 field users, and they were on a mix of Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. Our largest workforce, our Service and Repair workforce, were on really old devices as well. The project was manifold because, concurrent with the engineers’ laptops being replaced, my team introduced a new operating system alongside a brand new suite of applications.” Compounding this challenging project was the nature of field work, with niche requirements in comparison to desktop users. “They use a different VPN solution, and their connectivity largely depends on the Vodafone network,” says Rose. “Because they're geographically spread, they suffer challenges in some remote parts of the country where 4G is inaccessible. Those challenges all had to be taken into consideration.” Geographical isolation brings challenges beyond just connectivity, and technological solutions are addressing these as well. “It's very difficult to replace devices or enact a big IT upgrade because our field workforce is truly field-based, meaning they never come to a Centrica office and they don't have regional depots. The technology they're now using means they can communicate with the whole of Centrica using Yammer,” says Rose. “Yammer is Microsoft’s enterprise social media tool, and we have, for instance, particular groups that relate to their laptops. My team monitor the relevant groups and contact the engineers to get more information about trending problems.”
A critical partner of Centrica’s ongoing digital transformation has been Microsoft which, aside from the aforementioned Windows 10, Office 365 and Yammer, has also provided tools to ensure access to its services. “An amazing thing about the Microsoft tools that we're using is accessibility. For engineers or employees with disabilities across Centrica, those Microsoft tools provide a lot of extra functionality. If you are dyslexic, for instance, you can change the setup to make it more friendly to you. Subtitles are available for live meetings if you're hard of hearing, and if you’re visually impaired you can change the technology to work better for you.” On the hardware side, Panasonic has been vital to field work at Centrica, providing laptops and more. “Panasonic has been a Centrica technology partner for more than 20 years. I've worked with them practically all of that time, and they are an extremely supportive supplier. They have helped us to understand the technology that they're introducing as they refresh their current models, particularly during our latest project where we rolled out about 6,000 Panasonic TOUGHBOOK G1 devices to the field. We always work very closely with Panasonic when we're doing our device selections.” Providing the tailored builds to operate successfully in the field was Fujitsu. “We worked closely with Fujitsu to make sure that the Windows 10 build that we were deploying to our field workforce was the best that it could be and met the different needs of field users. That planning stage was vital, and what they delivered really worked for the field.”
With the change in technology there was a parallel need to ensure that it could be integrated culturally in different parts of Centrica. Rose found the appetite for digital transformation came from the highest levels. “The approval came from the top and our CIO, Mike Young. Digital transformation has been hugely important to him and his strategy, so in sponsorship terms there's never been an issue.” Care was taken to ensure the field workforce was on board and engaged with the introduction of new technologies. “We made sure there was a pilot group which was able to trial devices and get first looks at the software,” says Rose. “Where we're implementing new technology, we make sure that users are happy with it and really understand it before it gets deployed.” For the wider company, programmes are in place to spread the message and ensure understanding of new technologies. “One of the things that we've introduced at Centrica is a community called the Digital Champions Network, and we have 600 digital champions that help with the adoption of new Office 365 technology throughout the company.”
As much as it was important to ensure the right culture was in place to profit from digital transformation, Rose is passionate about the need for a culture shift surrounding issues of diversity. “I'm a strong voice in Centrica when it comes to talking about women and diversity issues. I am on the Centrica Women's Network working group and I head up the local chapter here at the office. It's a really exciting network and it's grown significantly, particularly over the last year. We're working a lot more closely with our Diversity and Inclusion team, so that the strategy of Centrica's Women's Network is supporting the strategy of our Diversity and Inclusion team. We have a committee and we organise events in our own location, whether it's career development sessions or presentation skills courses. We celebrate International Women's Day and we've done events for that which have generated awareness around the issues that women face in the workplace. My chapter has set up a mentoring scheme for women. We set it up around nine months ago, and we had a review session just a few months back. The impact that the mentoring scheme has had on the women participating has been astounding. It's not that we're saying every woman should be promoted – it's more that every woman should be the best that they can be, and the changes that we've seen in these women, and the changes and differences that they're making to our local office, has been amazing. Those kinds of things have been extraordinary to see and they're really making a difference.”
The perennial nature of digital transformation at Centrica sees a number of projects in the pipeline. “We’re speeding up how we deploy updates into our field workforce. There's a project going on with Microsoft at the moment using the DevOps model and Microsoft Store for Business. We're working with our local application teams so that, when fixes to current issues are identified, it's days before they get out to the workforce rather than weeks. It's vital to us that our engineers aren't falling behind on patches and operating system updates – both for the sake of security and feature updates that they bring. We’re working with our partner Fujitsu to make sure that we can keep those devices and our workforce in that Evergreen state. We're looking at BT Pinhole technology where we will be using the BT wifi network as an alternative to the 4G network, and Fujitsu are on board and very supportive with this. The most important thing for us is to be able to keep our estate Evergreen.” With the digital innovations implemented by Rose and her team, Centrica’s field workers can perform their crucial role with confidence in the technology they use.