Studies in innovation suggest that some of the best ideas and solutions to problems are generated by looking at practices outside of one’s own area of work. There’s a tremendous opportunity for CIOs to learn better practices from their counterparts in other areas of the business.
Here are 5 lessons you can learn from the utilities sector – power generation, transmission and distribution, and retail – which are particularly valuable.
Lesson 1: Communicate and predict outages
Managing outages is one of the key services provided by utilities organisations. During outages, utilities act quickly to restore power and put in place steps to minimise future outages. Utilities are leveraging technology capabilities in big data, analytics, visualisation and mobility to better communicate, manage and predict outages.
What can you learn?
Similar to utilities, one of the key areas in IT operations is to ensure system availability by effectively handling the system outages and minimising the impact to business.
While there are traditional processes on incident and problem management, practices commonly used by utilities are worth looking into.
- Can my IT team create a simple visual map showing the high level end-to-end application and technology interactions, for at least the top twenty services critical to business? Can we create an app that shows outages in real time to IT managers and possibly to business stakeholders?
- Can our IT group operate using a common visual map of services, which can be used by different service provider teams to identify the area of failure similar to how utilities operations centre manage their network?
Lesson 2: Vegetation management: trim the trees
Trees and plants are good friends of humans but aren’t great mates for power lines for the simple reason that can they can create serious incidents during adverse weather conditions.
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Every year, utilities organisations have a program of work to trim the vegetation that interferes with power lines and have an obligation to ensure safety. This whole capability is termed as vegetation management.
What can you learn?
The landscape of IT is no different to fast growing vegetation, as with every IT release, systems grow and complexity creeps in. This is even more profound with organisations moving to adopt Agile and DevOps to automate and increase their frequency of releases to a production environment.
In many CIO organisations, while there is great focus on agility, time to market and service restoration, there is very less emphasis on managing the technical debt.
Over a period of time, there is huge pile of technical debt resulting from too many applications, variety of tools used for similar purpose, poor code quality, complex infrastructure and high cost of support.
Taking a cue from the utilities sector, ask yourself:
- Can my IT team create a yearly/half yearly practice to review the technical currency of the services delivered?
- Can the service providers of IT be measured on the how they contribute to keep the technical debt to lower levels?
- Can technical debt management be an embedded capability for my CIO organisation instead of launching a separate transformation program every few years to simplify the IT landscape?
Lesson 3: Dial before you dig
Power utilities build and maintain lot of underground infrastructure which they share with land departments, property developers, telecom companies, water utilities, and agriculture departments.
In many leading utilities, this information is accurately measured, catalogued and provided as a service for the simple reason that before anyone digs the ground they are clear on what is underneath them.
‘Dial before you dig’ is even offered through a self-service channel in many countries and regions, where critical information is made available for different stakeholders to act responsibly.
What can you learn?
In the world of technology management where everything is connected, there is great focus on ensuring the changes made to one system doesn’t impact the other.
The practice of IT change management is chartered with the responsibility to quickly push the changes to production without creating any risk to the existing landscape.
It could work for few IT teams, however, in several IT organisations change management is a bureaucratic and slow process where the ceremony of taking changes to the change advisory board is perceived as a painful experience.
But try to encourage your IT team to think of a self-service like ‘dial before you dig’ where a development team can assess the impacts and push through changes to production.
Ask if there’s a single repository which can simply and provide different IT developments teams with the ability to query and understand system dependencies. A configuration management database, if implemented and used properly, can provide information on system dependencies, however the focus really is on the ‘if.
Lesson 4: Guaranteed service levels
Leading utilities organisations - communicate on the service levels they guarantee to their customers and pay credit if they fail to deliver as per their promise.
Some even reward customers if they are the first to report on any outages. In other words, utilities challenge themselves on the level of services provided and involve customers as part of their process.
What can you learn?
The practice of service levels and service credits is commonly followed in IT delivery when it comes to managing its own service providers. However, CIO organisations can do more in terms of challenging themselves and communicating to the business on service levels and initiatives taken towards service excellence.
So ask yourself:
- Can my IT group reward the business teams or team member who helps to identify the most problems in systems or provides the suggestions to improve it? While one could argue that it is the responsibility of the business teams to report on issues or request for changes, a change in this thinking could do a world of wonder to gain the confidence of business stakeholders.
- Can IT service measures be elevated and linked to how it directly or indirectly contributed to the business performance measures?
Lesson 5: Embrace disruption
The growth of renewables and the interest from customers to generate their own power through alternative energy sources like solar has put tremendous pressure on the utilities. Without getting perturbed, few leading utilities are embracing this change and see this as an opportunity.
For example, when it comes to solar, several utilities today are working with the community to create an ecosystem for interested customers not only to generate their own power but to share the solar generated power with their neighbouring households and are also enabling them to sell the excess power back to the grid.
What can you learn?
The growth in cloud and as-a-service solutions today is empowering the business teams with adequate knowledge and choice on technology solutions. The proliferation of these solutions and technologies is becoming a double edged sword to CIOs as they need to maintain a fine balance in allowing the adoption of newer solutions without creating complexity and compromising on the risks.
With this in mind, determine if it’s worth taking another look at your operating model by positioning your IT group as a broker and manager of new solutions, similar to the role utilities organisations play in the adoption of renewable energy.
Balaji OS is a management consultant specialising in IT strategy, operating models, performance management, business architecture, business process improvement and innovation. He has delivered consulting engagements across several utilities in Australia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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