Utility department
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This month, David Socha, Teradata’s practice partner for Industrial IoT, discusses the changing role of the utilities IT Department.A couple of weeks ago, I caught up with an old boss of mine, from my utility days, writes Socha.

It was great to see him and also great to hear of his ongoing plans in his current role, leading the IT function for an international utility’s UK operations.  Specifically, he talked about the importance of IT’s role as a key enabler for the business, and how things had to change from the way we once operated.

Back in the day, the job of the typical utility department for IT was often as gatekeepers, as much as anything else.  Mostly, this gave IT a bad reputation as a necessary evil, a cost centre and – at times – an albatross around the necks1 of the business users, who just wanted to get stuff done.  Central IT departments often mandated certain vendors, and we told those vendors never to talk directly to the business.  If they wanted a relationship with the company, the only way was to come through IT.  End of story.

At this point, I’m sure many of you are rolling your eyes, agreeing with me how terrible this used to be.  Or even worse, shouting at the screen that actually David, nothing much has changed in your utility company.  Aaaaargh, right?  Well, bear with me.  I am going to get to the part where I talk about how IT must change and in many cases, is already changing. But first, let’s talk just a little about why so many IT departments behaved like they behaved for so long.

Traditional utility companies can be simply categorised as asset and engineering businesses.  Yes, there’s more to them than that.  But the majority of the people and the majority of the money has traditionally gone into buying physical assets and making them work efficiently.  This means that utilities are full of engineers.  Engineers like to know how stuff works.  And control how stuff works.  Problem number 1 for the utility department for IT.  Problem number 2 has always been that there’s been that “other IT department” too.  The Operational Technology team, that owns and operates the SCADA, the Historians, the network management applications etc.  And has nothing to do with the core IT team.

In such an environment, it’s all too often the case that a well-meaning engineer might find some software that could be useful; stick it on a server he probably shouldn’t have under his desk, and start to do some interesting work with it.  Years later, someone will notice that this software has become business critical.  But it’s never been backed up.  The server is out of support.  So is the software.  It crashes.  And suddenly, it becomes IT’s fault.  And IT’s problem to make it supportable, supported and part of a formal business process.  Because the original engineer is retiring on Tuesday, and nobody knows how his software makes the whole damn company run…   Oh, and what do you mean there will be a cost associated with supporting this system properly?  We’ve run it for years for free.  Damn IT idiots.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that IT tried to stop these things happening in the first place?  And that tensions could escalate?  And that IT became seen as that blocker; that cost-centre; that pain in the proverbial?  I think not.

But enough of that.  Let’s fast-forward to a modern, data-driven world, where technology options have changed beyond recognition; the traditional utilities business is facing a transform-or-die scenario; and everyone…everyone can access pretty much whatever software they want to, via an online vendor that used to just sell them books and toys for the kids.2

In this new world, utility IT departments have no option but to also transform.  There’s no way to remain in the role of gatekeeper anymore.  The gates no longer even exist.  Instead, IT must become what they always aspired to be and always should have been.  Business partners.  Technical supporters, advisors, enablers for the business needs.

In my world – the world of data and analytics – to a great extent that means providing safe environments for business people to try new things with data integration and new analytics techniques.  It means making clear to line-of-business colleagues that yes, they can experiment to discover new insights, but there’s also a process for operationalising the genuinely valuable things they find and bringing them into formal support.  And for scrapping the stuff that didn’t work.  It means publicising to users the tools and data sources available to them and supporting them in their use.

It’s no longer about “give me your requirements…see you in 6 months”.  It’s about “here’s an environment and an opportunity, let’s see what we can achieve together, and quickly”.

Now, there will still be major IT infrastructure projects.  And for the foreseeable future, probably the odd ERP project and such like that may still need some old-school IT programme delivery.  And it’s also the case that not all analytics projects are based on the discovery-led techniques I describe above.  But many are.  And many more could be.  Or even should be.

We really are in a time of transformation in the utilities business.  And IT has to be right at the heart of it, because the alternative is to become irrelevant and fade away.  I’m pretty sure my old boss gets that, and is on the case.  I hope your own IT department gets it too.

 

1 The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Shakespeare last month, Coleridge this month…I’m not sure when this became and English literature blog.  But hey.

2 Yes, other cloud providers that didn’t start as booksellers are available too.

 

About the author:

David Socha is Teradata’s Practice Partner for the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT).  He began his career as a hands-on electrical distribution engineer, keeping the lights on in Central Scotland, before becoming a part of ScottishPower’s electricity retail deregulation programme in the late 1990s. After a period in IT Management and Consulting roles, David joined Teradata to found their International Utilities practice, later also taking on responsibilities in Smart Cities and the wider Industrial IoT sector.

 

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