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The Energy to Innovate

Elaine Robinson, Innovation Programme Manager at Electric Ireland

— March 27, 2017 — Business
Not all innovation is about increasing consumers' product usage — with the energy industry's imperatives to focus on decarbonization, innovation involves getting consumers to use less of the commodity. Elaine Robinson, Innovation Programme Manager at Electric Ireland, spoke to Trend Hunter about pushing innovation in such an environment.

TH: Tell us about yourself and your role.

ER: I actually spent the last 20 years in telecoms, and I just moved in the last couple months to the incumbent utility provider in Ireland. But before that, I started off my career with Ericsson, and I traveled the world with them. Then I moved to a startup mobile company in Ireland where I was one of the first employees, and we built that up to over a million customers, so that was really exciting.

My background was in technical, so I was very much on the engineering and network management side of the business. But then I did an MBA and realized that the world doesn’t revolve around technology; it revolves around sales, marketing, and — most importantly — the customer. So then I moved into product development, where I’ve spent the last ten years.

Then a few months ago I decided to get out of telco, and I moved into the energy industry. So I’m now in the innovation business unit, working with a range of organizations here in Ireland. Driving decarbonization is a huge part of our strategy — essentially encouraging customers to use less of our product — but on the plus side, we’re working towards saving the planet! [laughs]

How do you and your team generate great ideas? Do you have certain rituals to make creativity happen?

For a company to be truly innovative, there must be a way to capture ideas from everywhere — not only from within the innovation department. Anyone within the company should feel they have the opportunity to bring their ideas to the table and have them suitably assessed by the right people.

And then a company must have their finger on the pulse with respect to what’s happening in the wider environment. Innovation might happen in that you’re taking someone else’s idea and adapting it for your own business model, process, or product.

So I think innovation has to come both internally and externally. We don’t have explicit rituals to capture innovation per se; it’s more about creating a culture where people are given a voice and encouraged to share their ideas.

What are some barriers to innovation? How do you get around them?

For innovation to really work, the senior management has to buy into it. Unless you have that top table support, it’s not going to work: “business as usual” and all the technical priorities will always get done first, before innovation. Without this support, it is almost impossible to be truly innovative.

After that, it’s culture. It’s about having an appetite for risk, a culture within the organization that’s open to new ideas, and people doing things that aren’t necessarily related to the bottom line or their day jobs. I’m lucky to work for a company that believes in and encourages innovation.

How do you identify trends? What resources do you and your team use to spot trends and insights?

The challenge for some of the large companies that I’ve worked for is that we tend to look within our own industry, and in the new world, we need to be more open to what’s happening in adjacent industries or even completely unrelated industries. That takes time, and it’s not easy. It’s important that time is made for innovation and for looking at what’s happening in other industries.

Within the innovation team, it’s our role to lead that. There needs to be the wider innovation focus in the company as a whole, but the innovation team needs to be responsible for gathering those ideas, prioritizing, filtering, and then channeling the black art of picking out the ideas that you think might actually go somewhere.

Has there ever been an instance where another industry has influenced an innovation at your company?

Absolutely! And I think it’s important to recruit people from other industries so you can steal really good ideas [laughs]. In my personal experience, I’m coming from a telco environment, and I’ve moved into the utility and energy environment. I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say the telco industry is maybe five years ahead of the utility companies with regards to the pace of change and the customer focus. So I’ve been able to bring some of the thinking from the telco world into my current role.

What are some examples of things you can do to create a culture of innovation?
When people have come up with ideas, we’ve empowered them to go ahead and pursue them. In the wider organization, there are opportunities to take time out of their day job and go down to an incubation center for a while and work on their project in a hyper-innovative environment, and funding is provided for that. We’ve run hackathons where we invite people to work on a number of business challenges for us. Those are just a couple examples.

What do you think your industry will look like in 10 years?

As I said before, I think the energy industry is a couple years behind the telco industry, and I think the telco industry is going through fundamental changes at the moment. It’s moving very rapidly; we’re seeing complete disintermediation of the traditional value chain, we have a growing number of disruptive players, and I think it’s becoming less about technology. Technology now is just an enabler, and it’s so much more about customer experience, the brand, etc. I heard someone say something recently that really resonated with me, “Customers don’t buy products anymore, they buy from brands.” And I really think that’s so true.

In the energy industry we have a bunch of challenges. Aside from the mega-challenge of decarbonization, I think the biggest challenge for us is remaining relevant to our customers. Energy is a commodity item, so it’s very hard to differentiate on electricity and power supply. In ten years’ time, unless we crack that challenge of remaining relevant to our customers, there’s a very big risk for the industry, which is primarily around the supply of energy.

But there are a number of scenarios. There’s an extreme scenario, where we’ve become completely irrelevant, and customers are generating their own electricity through solar and wind, and then peer-to-peer sharing of energy. In that kind of extreme scenario, we’re completely disintermediated. And then there’s the other end of the scale where we do remain relevant, and customers continue to buy their energy from us and trust us. Where we’re giving them premium service with tariffs that suit their energy usage, they’re using less of our product and we’re contributing to decarbonization objectives, and we’re rolling out new technology and products that help customers in their daily lives.