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CIO50 2018 #8: Chris Ford, SA Power Networks

  • 2017 Rank 15
  • Name Chris Ford
  • Title Chief information officer
  • Company SA Power
  • Commenced role January 2014
  • Reporting Line Chief executive officer
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Technology Function 250 staff with 9 direct reports
  • Related

    The electricity industry is going through a period of rapid change – the way the network will be used in the future is very different to the way it has ever been used in the past, says SA Power chief information officer, Chris Ford.

    “Many things we are trying to do today have just not been done before and technology-led innovation really is the key to our future success,” he says.

    In addition to modifying and replacing systems, Ford and his team are using a range of technologies to help the organisation reduce electricity prices, satisfy increased customer demand for information and ensure the company is secure from the increasing prevalence of cyber security threats.

    SA Power is experimenting with drones to inspect powerlines which will improve the accuracy of inspections and reduce labour costs. Drones and Lidar (light detection and ranging] are used to build augmented and virtual reality models of the organisation’s substations. This has improved the quality of designs, reduced cost and improved the safety of the build phase of projects – a great collaboration between IT and engineering, Ford says.

    SA Power also recently welcomed a telepresence robot as another way to connect people across the business.   

    “Jessica Robo is proving quite a hit,” he says. “It has also helped me engage with my team of 250 staff spread across two buildings. Early August when I was walking from home, Jessica and I walked around then office chatting to people using the Beam app which was a great experience.”

    SA Power has also recently gone live with a ‘self-healing’ network. This means the network can now identify a faulty section, isolate it and return power to the areas around the fault. This minimises downtime and reduces the number of customers without supply, Ford says.

    The implementation of an on-demand cloud security protection solution reduced the organisation’s malicious emails to near zero, decreasing its security exposure. This implementation has saved the company around $80,000 per year.

    But SA Power’s biggest innovation story of the year came from the ‘machine learning algorithm to convert CA drawings’ (MLA) project. This came about when young developers and engineers were challenged to convert thousands of old CAD drawings from different sources onto one platform.

    “They used facial recognition technology to identify the images on CAD drawings and then machine learning algorithms to correct and improving them before transferring to a digital drawing.

    “The MLA project was a great success – it saved thousands of labour hours and improved the quality and accuracy of our drawings. It has also enabled us to consolidate the engineering-CAD applications and drawing management systems, and we are looking at using the same approach for two more projects,” says Ford.

    What’s unique about the MLA project is that the team used facial recognition technologies to identify the images on CAD drawings and them machine learning algorithms to improve them before transferring to a digital drawing. More than 6000 Quicksilver files have been converted to intelligent AutoCAD drawing files using a machine learning algorithm while 60,000 files have also been transferred into Autodesk Vault, Ford says.

    The project has now won two awards for innovation in what we believe is a world first for facial recognition and machine learning technologies together in this field.

    According to Ford, the CIO team has been instrumental in driving innovation across the organisation.

    “I have created the role of innovation manager to drive our initiatives with a dedicated budget for experimentation and innovation. This budget has been used to investigate data analytics, robotic process automation, VR and AR, and buy Jessica Robo,” he says.

    “These experiments are designed to inspire innovation through early expose, bring life to digital experiences, stay connected by expanding our reach, leverage remote opportunities all with the overall intention of greater connectiveness and mobility.”

    Creating an innovative culture

    Ford says his mission is to inspire staff to consider new ways to approach a problem with experiment. All staff are encouraged to test new technologies and there is a dedicated virtual reality and augmented reality room for people to work with these technologies and think about how they can be used. Ford has also funded innovation training for 30 people.

    Ford has also nurtured a culturally-diverse team with his colleagues in the CIO group hailing from 40 different countries. The group celebrates diversity during ‘international lunch days’ where everyone brings food to share from their home country.

    “The CIO group is also a very active social club, bringing people together and encouraging relationships,” he says. “This year, we held the Office Olympics, an international foosball competition during the World Cup and our ‘Rise of the robots.’”

    Around 35 per cent of staff in the CIO group are women and Ford encourages female leaders to speak at Women in IT and Women in Leadership events.

    “We also attend local schools and colleges with virtual reality goggles to show them examples of what is possible and inspire young women to pursue a career in IT,” Ford says.

    No fear

    Ford believes the key to leadership is innovation is experimenting without fearing failure.

    "My most important achievement has been giving the team the confidence to experiment with new ways of working and empowered them to transform the way we work. The biggest lesson I have learnt in my career is that you give people trust and support and inspire them to believe in themselves, they will achieve far more than either of you expect," he says.

    "Over the past few years, I have been on a journey of personal discovery that has challenged all of my previous learning and beliefs. As I have embraced VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), and driven the adoption of agile, I have learned to let go and trust in my people. The rewards have been amazing," he says.

    Meanwhile, Ford says that CIOs will have some challenging times ahead.

    “We tread a very fine line between ensuring systems and applications are developed in a secure and sustainable way while embracing the business requirement for quick and low-cost solutions in a world of rapidly changing technologies and delivery options.

    “For me, the CIO is best placed to drive the digital transformation of the organisation. However, it is also incumbent on us to continue to evolve and grow, embracing the future and demonstrating strategic leadership,” he says.

    Byron Connolly

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