United Utilities CIO William Hewish clearly demonstrated how a business's apparent weaknesses can be turned into strengths.

With a 2017 PwC report on the potential loss of UK jobs to automation putting water utilities as the sector most at risk (62.6% of the industry's jobs are at high risk of automation), Hewish riposted with a small robotic process automation project that demonstrated proof of value. He has since implemented 10 robots that monitor thousands of alerts from the water network and automatically schedule engineers where necessary. It has automated 20,000 man-hours of manual effort, freeing United's staff to work on more complicated tasks. Hewish has even appointed a head of robots to cope with the pace of RPA work.

As for the threat of disruption by the Internet of Things (utility companies have thousands of core assets such as pumps, valves and pressure monitors that can be connected), he successfully trialled very cheap IoT devices to help vibration engineers monitor the performance of critical assets via their mobile phones. The next step will be to select robust, calibrated devices that can alert engineers to failing assets.

Nor has Hewish and his team simply hijacked disruptive technologies for the business's advantage; they are trying to seize the digital high ground for the sector as a whole. With the introduction of competition in the business water market in England and Wales, Hewish drove an automated, real-time, digital-first approach by the industry body to creating the underpinning transactional systems. United's own new processes, organisation and systems went live on time when the market opened.