Software firm Wheatley puts innovation at the heart of its business

Jeremy Goulding, chief executive of Wheatley Associates.

Jeremy Goulding, chief executive of Wheatley Associates.

Suffolk-based software company Wheatley recently won the inaugural Innovation Martlesham competition. Ross Bentley visited the company and found that the business is full of good ideas.

The quiet Suffolk village of Bacton, a few miles north of Stowmarket, is not a place where you would expect technological innovation to be thriving.

But it is the home of software company Wheatley who has put the development of new concepts and solutions at the heart of its business, to the point that it recently won the inaugural Innovation Martlesham (IM) competition run in association with BT, University Campus Suffolk and Suffolk County Council.

Wheatley’s winning idea is concerned with using technology to help tackle the issue of how to support vulnerable and elderly people longer in their own homes. The company will now have the opportunity of working with SCC, UCS and BT to develop its idea and to see how it can dovetail with its own technologies relating to the scheduling of maintenance work for utility meters.

When I meet up with the CEO of Wheatley Jeremy Goulding, he is keen to emphasise that the winning concept is currently just that, a concept. He shows me a short video cartoon that helps to illustrate the idea. It shows an elderly person at their home living an independent life with the help of technologies such as video conferencing to stay in touch children and pay bills, and alerts to remind them to take their medication.

Jeremy says as yet what specific technologies may be used in any final solution has not been decided upon, or maybe even invented. But what their entry does do is identify a need and looks at the user and the potential inputs of different stakeholders.

“The big thing for us is that we have access to Suffolk County Council, the research labs at BT and UCS and their innovation teams” said Goulding.

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“What we get is a big market research project and the prize of having access to their resources and accumulated knowledge is fantastic. Suffolk County Council are very positive in terms of what they want to do with care in the community and the BT labs can offer advice on the technologies available and what technologies that can be wrapped into it.”

He added: “What we have is put up is a bit of a shopping list but we don’t know the market, so if we can understand what the needs are we can link that to our areas of expertise.”

Wheatley’s areas of expertise are developing databases to track utility meters in the UK and software that schedules and manages the workers who maintain, repair and replace these meters.

The company’s history goes back 25 years to its founder, John Wheatley, who was working in the electricity sector when the industry was deregulated. He saw an opportunity to build an IT system where all meters could be registered. The database became a backbone of the industry and was adopted by the majority of providers in the sector. The software remains one of Wheatley’s core products today and is still used by over half the meters installed around the UK.

This technology has also helped facilitate the move towards increased competition in the energy sector by allowing consumers to change providers easily because the information on the meters can be passed between metering in a straightforward way.

Another key product for Wheatley is its scheduling solution which is a system that manages the workloads of meter workers and is able to dynamically adapt to changing situations on the fly. The scheduling system takes account of where jobs are, what kind of jobs they are and what skills are required, as well as being able to take into account emergency jobs and cancellations, re-jigging appointments, setting time windows, and automatically sending texts to householders.

“We have all that technology in our metering products and we saw the underlying technology could be used in the idea we sent to Innovation Martlesham,” continued Goulding.

“We have put innovation at the heart of how we grow our business. The UK metering business is finite – there are around 50million meters in the UK and there’s only so many database applications available. That will be a core part of our business for many years to come but it won’t be a growing market in the sense that there won’t be a huge growth in meters.

“The room for our business to grow is to leverage the technology that underpins our metering applications.”

The culture of innovation that exists at Wheatley has grown from the time three private investors bought the business from John Wheatley five years ago. Jeremy was hired as CEO to help realise the investors’ ambitions of growing the business and creating a culture of innovation.

He said: “Innovation needs total commitment from the management, as wells as patience and consistency. We started on the change two to three years ago but it’s really kicked off in the last 18 months.”

A key stage on this journey was the company signing up to a Government initiative called the Growth Accelerator programme where a coach visited the business.

Jeremy says the appointment of marketing manager Jane Bromley, who joined Wheatley 12 months ago, was another important step. Bromley’s remit was to take advantage of the Growth Accelerator programme and to add to that within the company.

She says making Wheatley a good place to work was key to unlocking innovation.

“You don’t just need total commitment from management, you need to involve everybody, to encourage them to participate as little or as much as they feel comfortable,” said Bromley. “Unless you have a culture where people are happy to come to work and openly talk through the layers of the organisation, and everyone is open and honest then that won’t happen.”

Bromley has been instrumental in putting in formal structures around generating new ideas, what happens to them and how they are assessed.

She continued; “We need to understand what ideas fit our company – we might have lots of ideas that we like as consumers but we don’t have the skills at Wheatley to develop them. How do we assess what the real customer need is for that idea and is that a fit for us and something we can explore and test?”

Each week the company holds an innovation hour – where representatives from each of the teams within the company sit around and brainstorm ideas. Techniques learnt from the Growth Accelerator programme are used to generate ideas and they all go into a tried and tested pipeline. The idea that won the Innovation Martlesham prize came from this process.

Every two to three months a steering committee rank the ideas and look further at what can feasibly be done to progress the concept.

Bromley added: “The process means we aren’t putting a huge investment behind any of these ideas from an early stage. We are just seeing if they open doors and start conversations before we dedicate any development resources to make them a reality.”