Putting our heads together
13 November 2012
As a key customer for weather services, EDF Energy is now partnering with the Met Office. The collaboration is supporting an innovation culture that will benefit both organisations.
EDF Energy generates around one fifth of the UK's electricity, employs 15,000 people and is the country's largest low-carbon energy producer. The company has a constant need for accurate weather information to help it predict energy demand within the UK and protect valuable assets.
"What's interesting is that we and the Met Office face similar challenges," explains EDF Energy Innovation Manager for Business-to-Business, Caroline Griffiths.
"We each have lots of talented people whose job is to come up with creative, working solutions to drive our companies forward, so trying to capture and track innovation is difficult. Both organisations also have to meet the requirements of diverse groups of people - working within a clear framework of delivering value. Our joint priority is to deliver against our obligations to all stakeholders and commit to continuous innovation to better serve and anticipate our customers' needs."
So while innovation is by no means new to both organisations, there are plenty of opportunities for promoting it further. Caroline sees it as a vehicle by which evolution and transformation is possible. "It helps us differentiate and therefore reach our ambition to be the leading supplier of energy to British business. Innovation provides a space
in which people can think differently, enabling them to drive the business forward."
"It's about identifying the differences between what we're doing today and what we need to do tomorrow," says Caroline. "It's also about recognising the importance of the innovation and entrepreneurial skill set - something that's often underestimated."
No time like the present
But while innovation is a popular buzz word, it also inspires appetite and fear in equal measure. How do you justify the resources needed to innovate in a tough commercial climate when it's tempting to 'batten down the hatches' and hang on to what you have already?
For Caroline, the argument is clear cut: "There are plenty of studies that show that innovating in an economic crisis helps businesses remain competitive so they can emerge on the other side. Hunkering down simply to maintain your position is not viable for large organisations in the longer term."
Sharing best practice since 2011
It's this shared commitment to the innovation concept that saw the EDF Energy-Met Office partnership take off in 2011 - an arrangement that's resulted in a fertile exchange of ideas ever since.
EDF Energy is investing in its future and its people, building an innovative training environment for all EDF Energy employees due to open at the end of 2013. It will help further develop the skills needed for today and for tomorrow - including innovation and collaboration skills.
Caroline considers that EDF Energy can benefit from embedding a framework comparable to the Met Office's ThinkUP Academy (see more on page 11). So, having seen the advantages of a scheme first launched in 2008 and also sent a number of its staff on ThinkUP courses, EDF Energy is developing training and development specific to harnessing the innovative and entrepreneurial skillset.
This initiative flags up the importance of innovation for the corporate culture," says Caroline, "and the need for the right tools and methodology for innovating on a day to day basis. It really puts the subject on the map."
In the same collaborative spirit, Met Office employees have taken part in several of EDF Energy's innovation road shows and 'away days' and learnt from sharing best practice.
Let it flow
Caroline believes that one of the most important drivers for innovation is 'openness' - the ability of an organisation to hear the voices of its own staff, as well as that of its customers and marketplace. Creating a forum for capturing ideas - and testing their viability - is therefore critical for making this happen.
Both businesses have automated online systems for enabling customers and employees to put forward suggestions and then assessing them. At the Met Office it's 'Idea Street', a website created by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. EDF Energy's business to business equivalent is the 'Powering Innovation' web portal, with both partners working closely to make ideas management as effective as possible.
Rooms for improvement
While an online ideas repository is something no innovative company should be without, having the right physical space where people can push the boundaries is equally important.
Again, both companies have been sharing thoughts on the use of dedicated rooms and areas where staff can 'think outside the box' - for example the Met Office's welcoming, brightly coloured ThinkUP room in Exeter and a range of facilities across EDF Energy's UK sites.
Caroline Griffiths acknowledges their vital role, highlighting the importance of an appropriate working environment where employees spend most time - their day-to-day work stations and offices.
"Psychology of the environment is key. All spaces need to be appropriate for the job," says Caroline, "and they also need the right tools and technologies for recording and sharing ideas in the working space as well as having specific rooms to encourage collaboration of ideas amongst groups."
What next for the collaboration?
New ways of working innovatively will continue to evolve, for example those inspired by jointly attended sessions at the University of Exeter's Innovation and Entrepreneurial Directorate. Online forums will develop further to encourage ring fenced areas where senior managers can better share ideas, as well as interact with customers.
"In terms of the partnership," says Caroline, "we'll continue to share the innovation journey and influence each other's experience of it. And it's not just about what you see, but the integral layers that sit behind the organisation. It's so much more than a brand exercise."