Technology leaders must adopt a leadership role in enabling sustainable business models and driving decarbonisation at their organisations, according to Andrew Quail, director of IT and innovation at utilities company SGN.
Quail was speaking at Tech Monitor Live: Technology and leadership in the post-pandemic recovery, where he discussed innovation and tech transformation at the gas distribution company, which supplies six million homes in Scotland and the south of England.
“When you talk about sustainability, people often think about data centres, energy consumption and disposing of equipment ethically,” Quail said.
“That’s the recycling, that’s the basics you should do – the minimum. Our sector has an existential threat in terms of decarbonisation. My role as a leader in the business isn’t just to be more sustainable, it’s to drive and enable a business model which is fundamentally different and actually achieves a 0% carbon target.
“It’s not about tinkering around the edges, to me it’s fundamental because if I don’t do that and my peers across other energy business don’t do that then we have a big, big problem – not just in the energy sector but as human beings.
“The biggest mistake I could make is to sit back and just ‘run IT’ – it’s about driving that agenda of decarbonisation and enabling fundamentally different and new business models.”
Quail was the executive on call the evening that the UK’s lockdown restrictions were announced. As such, he was in charge of the immediate crisis response, and had to make “some very big decisions which our company had never had to make in the past”.
Luckily, the organisation was at the end of a major transformation in spring 2020 that included a cloud migration, Microsoft Teams roll-out and refresh of employee devices, so it was well placed to enable a distributed workforce. The organisation is now considering how it will continue to work as the UK emerges from more than a year of intermittent restrictions.
“Like everybody else, we are questioning whether we even go back to offices at all,” he said. “We are going through the permutations of what that actually looks like and it’s something we are still working out, but needless to say the flexibility will be retained.
“I think a really nice feature, and something I believe we were doing within the IT function certainly, was trusting people. Output-based performance, not presenteeism – it’s a cultural shift, but I focus much more on outcomes rather than being in an office.”
A silver lining of the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic was cementing the role technology leaders have in developing fundamentally different organisational and operational structures, Quail said.
SGN now has a renewed focus on its innovation agenda as part of its post-pandemic recovery, said Quail. With the cost pressures brought about by the coronavirus crisis, he said there would have to be less emphasis on some of the serendipitous and experimental element of SGN’s research and development initiatives, and instead put a “real laser focus on making sure that it is successful, and is rolled out and deployed”.
Quail also discussed leading cyber efforts at an organisation classified as UK’s critical national infrastructure, the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on the utilities sector, leadership through crises, and SGN’s award-winning innovations in robotics and innovation.
He was speaking alongside Vertical Aerospace CIO Madhu Bhabuta, Covéa Insurance Chief Technology and Information Officer Graeme Howard, and John Quinn, the executive director of technology, digital, data and delivery at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency at Tech Monitor Live: Technology and leadership in the post-pandemic recovery.