Recent Posts

New Video: KCP&L Automates to Innovate

We’ve been talking about showcasing Kansas City Power & Light’s (KCP&L’s) innovative automation thinking for about a year. Months of meetings and planning. Days of shooting video onsite. Weeks of post-production to get it all just right and here we are. It’s a wrap. If you haven’t seen the video, click here. For more behind-the-scenes details  and photos read on. SOUNDBITE: Twenty years ago, everything was on paper. We were taking phone calls from customers, trying to find those customers on a paper map, seeing if everything was close enough together to group up into [a bigger response]. Today, the system does that for us. Dan Munkers, senior manager, DSO Those fine details: KCP&L has crafted a unique extension to the standard Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system for distribution automation (including fault location analysis) using Oracle Utilities Network Management System (NMS)—and some creative thinking and strategy. This project allows the utility to: Increase visibility without increasing complexity for the operators. Expand efficiency efforts into new urban and rural settings. Use a common interface for multiple systems. Boost operational performance. Integrate more devices and data at scale. Exceed reliability standards. Lower cost. SOUNDBITE:  KCP&L has been a pioneer in the industry on distribution automation since the ‘90s. … We’re excited to apply all the new innovative ideas to our system. Tianling Wu, principal engineer. Operations Technology Group More about KCP&L: Founded in 1882, Kansas City Power & Light has grown into a trusted energy provider and resource. More than 130 years ago, a small group of forward-thinking Kansas Citians believed electricity was more than a novelty. As a result, KCP&L now serves more than 800,000 customers in 47 northwest Missouri and eastern Kansas counties. With a service area of about 18,000 square miles, it takes more than 3,000 miles of transmission lines, 24,000 miles of distribution lines and over 400 substations to deliver power to their customers.  In 2018, KCP&L merged with Westar Energy to bring their customers more savings, sustainable energy and solutions to meet every need. The companies are combining operations, resulting in a stronger regional energy provider. And now you must watch the video. Just click here. 

We’ve been talking about showcasing Kansas City Power & Light’s (KCP&L’s) innovative automation thinking for about a year. Months of meetings and planning. Days of shooting video onsite. Weeks of...

Innovation Lab Series

Put Down the Raw Water and Turn on the Tap

The raw water trend is all over the news. It’s a top hot thing—drinking unfiltered water straight from a spring (though sometimes diverted through a bottling plant and available in stores for nearly $20 a pop). It’s a trend that would make John Snow roll over in his grave. (No, not “Game of Thrones” Jon Snow. Read on.) The real-life John Snow was the father of a major component of the modern water system as we know it, though perhaps not in a way most people would immediately recognize. But let’s start at the beginning. Humans have been moving water a good long time—since before actual time, really, since what we like to label “prehistory.” Storing and moving water is, in fact, an early sign of civilization (in infrastructure form). Stone was favored originally for the moving. The ancient Greeks invented pressurized piping and indoor plumbing (of sorts). So, for eons we focused on the moving of water, but that’s not the full snapshot anymore with water systems. So, where does Snow come into this evolving water picture? Well, he didn’t have anything to do with moving water, but he had everything to do with making it drinkable (or, as they like to say in the biz, “potable”)—and decidedly less deadly. An English doctor, John Snow made the connection between dirty water and disease during a London cholera outbreak in the 1850s. But, he was honestly making a very educated guess based on observational data hot spots. It wasn’t until Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke showed the world all the stuff floating in water (with the use of the microscope) that we really understood that what looks clean may not be clean. (That deserves repeating today: What looks clean may not be clean.) As that knowledge became more accepted, water utilities started to filter their drinking water and treating their wastewater, and that filtering has saved a lot of lives and prevented any number of disease outbreaks in the last nearly 100 years or more as we refined the systems. Water quality has advanced pretty far since those early days, and we’ve added in chlorination and UV light cleaning practices as well. This field encompasses a whole slew of standards and regulations, such as the Clean Water Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act here in the U.S. and the Drinking Water Directive in Europe, as well as data comparing and contrasting allowable particle ratios and, of course, the rather subjective views on taste. But, in an amazing world John Snow (and, probably, Jon Snow, too) could only dream of, we can drink water straight from the tap in almost any place in the U.S. and Europe. (In fact, Louisville Water, a utility in Kentucky, is so proud of their water quality and taste, they’ve branded it Pure Tap and actively promote doing just that—drinking that water straight from the tap for all events and functions, from family to corporate.) We’ve become so used to this behind-the-scenes filtering and easy-to-use infrastructure that we sometimes forget that note we repeated earlier—that what looks clean may not actually be clean (and that you can’t see microorganisms without the proper lens but they can still make you very sick). So, what sort of items are we cleaning away/clearing out with filtered and purified water treatment in the modern water plant? In simple terms: protozoa, bacteria, viruses, algae, parasites. In scientific terms—the Googling of one of which will make you grateful for real-life John Snow and all who came after for at least a week if not a year— amebiasis, giardiasis, cholera (which was once common in water systems) and E.coli, just to name a handful. (And, yep, you heard that last one correctly: E. coli. So, yes, poop—maybe tiny, tiny particles of poop, but still poop.) We know we’re not the first to tell you that drinking raw water is a bad idea. The Washington Post has weighed the issue. So has The New York Times. In fact, Vox used those exact words—well, they said “drinking untreated water is a very bad idea.” So, they added a “very” to our conclusion. With all that, we realize we’re not going out on a limb here, but we do hope that this particular discussion helps you have a shade more respect for your local water utility and the work they do every day to make what comes out of your tap safe to drink without, usually, the need for a single second thought about it all before you sip. So, put down that raw water and turn on your tap. It’s cleaner … and cheaper, too.   Read more water stories from us: The Best Water Utility Accounts You Should Be Following Right Now How to craft the right data/water balance On tapping pride and laying pipe to the future of the water industry Dear water utilities: does your work and asset management measure up? 5 trending topics in the global water industry 6 words of water wisdom Best practices in customer communication from top American water utilities    

The raw water trend is all over the news. It’s a top hot thing—drinking unfiltered water straight from a spring (though sometimes diverted through a bottling plant and available in stores for nearly...

Customer Care

Seeing “The Princess Bride” as a brilliant customer service tutorial

One '80s flick is practically overflowing with fabulous lessons in behavioral science: “The Princess Bride.” I’ve been a fan of the movie since it hit theaters in 1987. When I was a preteen, it was delightful quote-bait, especially anything that came out of the mouth of Mandy Patinkin’s character Inigo Montoya. As I get older, “The Princess Bride” holds a safe, warm, nostalgic spot for me, and it struck me recently as also brilliantly spot-on with showing and predicting natural human reactions (even if it is a stylized version). That’s behavioral science in a nutshell. Quite simply, it’s the study of how people will react (not how we want people to react or how we hope they will react but how they will actually react). Despite the fact that we’re all human, when we get into groups that are socialized or culture-siloed, we tend to forget our normal human reactions and believe, instead, that people are motivated along that siloed thinking. Companies have, traditionally, been very bad at sinking into siloed thinking and ignoring behavioral science (utilities, too). That is slowly changing. We are pondering more and more about the customer and not just how we want the customer to respond but what motivations are required to create those responses—what nudges, what carrots, what comparisons. Whether you’re putting together a marketing push or a demand response program that relies on residential participation, you need good info on just how your consumers will react. Here are our top three lessons on behavior from “The Princess Bride” (TPB) that you can apply to your program planning and marketing strategy today: 1. Keep it simple: summarize and advise. After my favorite TPB character, Inigo, saves our hero from death, our hero remembers nothing of the previous story. Inigo replies, “Let me explain …. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” And he does. And they go on to win the battle, save the princess and conquer the day. Utilities, you get way too caught up in explaining. You know you do. I have this battle with engineers every day who want to put every number, every dot and every dash into the details. But, with the exception of that engineer mentality, most people don’t want to know every single dull and dreary moment of their power delivery and use. They want the executive overview, the important highlights, the major points. They want the Cliff’s Notes version of their problem, and then they want an answer to it. So, summarize your data points and then jump off from those data points with helpful hints: Turn your AC up two degrees. Run your pool pump at 2 am. Check your refrigerator for efficiency. This is how you become your customer’s trusted energy advisor—the place and space every utility wants to inhabit in the future. It’s not from dumping details in the customers' laps and letting them sort things out. (That’s a way to create a lot of lesson #2.) Being a trusted energy advisor comes from making sense of those numbers for your customers and then helping them find a solution. It’s from you doing the heavy lifting, not them. 2. Remember: anger is, unfortunately, a really, really great motivator. We continue this short list with more Inigo examples. He’s spent 20 years tracking down his father’s killer. He’s dedicated his life to this anger. He’s got speeches ready. He’s got sword-fighting techniques in hand. He’s prepared. Now, your unhappy utility customers—whether annoyed at an outage or confused about billing practices—aren’t going to dedicate their lives to destroying you. Luckily, you’re not dealing with quite that level of upset. But, you have to keep in mind that one unhappy customer will badmouth you more often (and for a longer period of time) than a happy one. Humans like happy, but we tend to dismiss it quickly. Problems and anger fester and settle and make us think more, which makes us touch that moment again and again and again in our minds. True, no matter what you do, you can never be perfect. You’ll always have some negative reactions to deal with, but remember these things when faced with angry consumers:  approach calmly and sympathize. (And we mean truly sympathize. Get into your customer’s head; feel his pain.) Solve the pain point quickly (and do not pass this problem along the chain). Be honest if there’s a problem, and, in the end, talk to that customer like a person and not a number. Finally: apologize. Customer communications is a two-way relationship and an ongoing conversation. Trusted energy advisors know when to say they're sorry. 3. On the positive side: true love never dies. This brings us to the basic plotline of TPB. It’s a love story—one that overcomes odds and clears hurdles from Greenland-native giants to a battle of wits (to the death). That enduring love-conquers-all may be the fairytale inside the book, but the frame of the movie (where the grandfather is reading the story to his sick grandson) is the real lesson, and the real love, in the movie: deep, honored, interconnected and with a long history. (It’s no coincidence that the grandfather says “as you wish” to the grandson when he asks to be read the story again tomorrow, a phrase we learn from the start of the storybook means “I love you.”) This is the love you’re looking for from customers. It’s what all the brand-building is all about, and you can see it with retail customers most clearly: buyers who prefer Nike shoes. Drinkers who opt for Jim Beam. The worldwide adoption of Swatch watches at one time. If you get the love right (and keep the love going), you can become not just a part of the customer’s daily life but a part of how they see themselves. That takes constant work and constant attention, but it can be done. You can become that trusted energy advisor to your customer. Just remember to say to them, constantly: as you wish.   When Oracle Utilities bought Opower, we got our own valuable lessons in behavioral science and customer focus, which is still incorporated into all of the great products in our Opower line. Take a look at how we can help you apply these TPB lessons to your own programs. Get details on self-service, peak management, energy efficiency and proactive alert options for your utility. Lead art courtesy of artist Charnchai via Pixabay. 

One '80s flick is practically overflowing with fabulous lessons in behavioral science: “The Princess Bride.” I’ve been a fan of the movie since it hit theaters in 1987. When I was a preteen, it was...

Innovation Lab Series

How to be an innovator: The Oracle OpenWorld meta edition

With all the synonyms for innovation at play in tech writing today—transformation, evolution, revolution, change, breakthrough—the one we never hear much is metamorphosis, although I’d say that’s perhaps the most accurate for what we’re experiencing. This is, in fact, a staged, stepped flip we’re all immersed in—a flip from something we once saw as a simple organism to something that’s now complicated and interconnected and a “meta” (or self-referential/self-reflective) form of ecosystem. The classic stages of a metamorphosis (as described mostly with insects but thoroughly skipped over by Kafka entirely) can be best summed up in the traditional butterfly example: egg, larvae, pupa, and, finally, adult. Think of our tech metamorphosis as always seeking to be a better, smarter, faster adult. We’re never happy with the adult we are. Instead, we are constantly changing to become the adult society needs (and expects). To become our next, best adult requires a whole lot of planning, some serious work internally and a willingness to cocoon ourselves in data and details to figure out how to survive the next stage. Data and details are essential to this process—as essential as hormones to the more classic sense of metamorphosis. We’re labeling this #InnovateWithIntent—the idea that you’ve got to pair those details and data with a more scientific approach. But where do you get all this data and all those details? And how do you interpret them with intent? We’d suggest you can get a handle on some of that data and a lot of those details at Oracle’s upcoming OpenWorld conference in San Francisco. (By the way, we’ll be live blogging from the show with examples of that ongoing metamorphosis.)   Here’s a short list of options for utilities sessions: Learn how Oracle Utilities, Accenture and some of our select customer partners envision the new industry future at the opening keynote session on Monday, Oct. 22. Plan your journey to the cloud with Oracle Utilities insiders on Tues., Oct. 23. Look deeper at grid model data management with Oracle Utilities and EPRI on Wednesday, Oct. 24. Explore how to get the most from your Oracle Utilities products with in-depth, hands-on sessions throughout the week, ranging from DSM details to network concepts.   Embrace the metamorphosis with #OOW18. Get general information on show registration and housing here. Can’t come to the conference? Follow all the utility industry details from OpenWorld on this blogsite, or through our Twitter feed.

With all the synonyms for innovation at play in tech writing today—transformation, evolution, revolution, change, breakthrough—the one we never hear much is metamorphosis, although I’d say that’s...

Innovation Lab Series

How to craft the right water/data balance

We’ve all heard about the energy-water nexus—how energy is required to make water usable and how water is required to make power work. The energy-water nexus is an important one, but it’s not the only nexus in the utilities mix. There’s another that we are beginning to talk about more and more—how much data is increasingly required whether you’re making power or cleaning and moving usable water (or moving gas, too). We’re calling this the utility-data nexus (because we’re not creative enough to find an entirely new name). Two sessions at CS Week influenced our discussion here on a subset of that nexus, the water/data balance, basically that data nexus with an eye on just the water side of utilities—no offense to power or gas utilities intended. Josh Bond, Manager of Business Technology with California Water Service, discussed analytics, efficiency and customer satisfaction in the “New Customer Values Through Smart Analytics” session, while Chad Moore, Supervisor of Customer Care at Las Vegas Valley Water District, examined field work and meter data in the “Improving Accuracy and Reducing Costs with Drive-By Data” session. Both speakers admitted, in different ways, that water may be a few steps behind (when it comes to data) but they’re not out. Yes, power and gas utilities are moving faster when it comes to conquering the big data equation, but water is taking nice steps into the arena and won’t be too far behind at the finish. So, what else did we learn in these chats about water utilities and data? Here’s our short list of takeaways to help you find that balance. Plan for timing: It can take months to pull in all the data you need at the start of any numbers-heavy project. Keep that timeline in mind and understand that it will need to get faster in the future, yes, but it won’t start off in real-time by any means. Don’t forget performance, reliability and security: Those make the foundation of any water utility project. Even as you reach for the cloud and real-time data use, you can’t ignore the basics. Push for new data projects to shift cash: There’s a move from OpEx to CapEx and more and more of these projects are being allowed to clock in on the CapEx side of the equation—a positive trend. Think out of the box: The exciting (and frightening) thing about data-based projects is, many times, there aren’t already established rules and guidelines. It’s a great opportunity to really have new conversations about new ways of making connections. The new mantra: unconventional is good. Clearly define your use cases: Before you get to the development stage, this is positively key. In order to integrate big ideas, you have to start with a smaller scale and pilot things. (And then work toward a point where you can trust the data, but, at the start, verify.) Educate new and shiny data system users: Utility insiders may not be the tech savvy kind. So, establish training to use this data in the ways you want. Don’t just assume they’ll get it automatically. Don’t roll the truck; trust the data: The old mantra of “when it doubt, roll it out” is over (once you’ve got your data to a true trustworthy point). Now, it’s “when it doubt, dig it out”—by delving into the data and working that angle. Accept that the future is in the cloud (and with natural language): Dashboards, trend analysis and nice, clean graphs that explain all the insights that field supervisors need to know are all available in the cloud today. And that will continue, with more and more spoken language/natural language queries—you know, like people already talk, whether those people are your employees or your customers.   Prepare for CS Week 2019 with more conference content: Engagement isn’t just about the customer Tampa Electric’s Nancy Tower offers 10 tidbits on customer culture and engagement PG&E turns direct outreach into a bump in SMB customer happiness Saving the water: Oracle Utilities and utility partners give back Finding synergy: on utility industry trends, analytics and crafting one amazing customer experience

We’ve all heard about the energy-water nexus—how energy is required to make water usable and how water is required to make power work. The energy-water nexus is an important one, but it’s not the only...

Technology and the Cloud

How will your utility weather our new industry future? Our strategist has one word for you

And that one word has options. It can be four (abbreviated) letters, or it can be longer. You’ll find the answer here somewhere. (We’ll even point it out.) But, first, let’s chat a little. We talk a lot, in this industry, about topics and concepts: blockchain, IoT, the shift to the cloud, grid modernization and growing customer demands. And these are all worthy themes to dissect and plan strategy around, for sure. But, there are people behind making blockchain a reality, connecting each bit of technology to smarter devices, smoothing the data flow to that cloud, fixing those interop problems with new grid hardware and thinking ahead to what customers will want tomorrow. It’s time we talked about some of those people pushing those topics and concepts, making them a reality for utilities around the globe from here inside Oracle. And so, the 3Qs blog series was born. For our next 3Qs conversation, we sit down with Mike Ballard, a Utilities Industry Strategist based in Devon in the UK and ask him—as the name of this series hints at—our three big questions.   Question 1: How did you get involved in utility business, and what makes (and keeps) you passionate about it? Ballard: My father was a nuclear engineer, designing power stations in the UK.  During the ’70s and ’80s, we had various materials, diagrams and an amazing old HP 85 computer, which he used to help with his calculations. He would teach me to program, and when I left school, he found me a job as an office administrator in the IT department of his power company. Within 18 months, I went from changing tapes on an IBM mainframe and ordering office suppliers to ordering and installing network servers and PCs (brand new in the ’90s) at the various power stations around the UK. Based almost entirely on my work experience, I got a place at university studying computing.  All my vacation was time spent back at the power stations, earning extra cash. I graduated at the top of my year with First Class Honors and within the year was back in the utility industry, where I remained for most of the next 20 years. I believe the utility and energy industries, globally, have both a unique opportunity, and responsibility, to solve world’s major challenge of securing supply of energy and water that is both affordable and environmentally sustainable.  I believe that technology is a key enabler to meeting this challenge, and I intend to continue playing my part in accelerating innovation in this sector and inspiring others to do the same. (Editor’s note: If you missed it. That was your answer. It’s “technology,” which we prefer in its four-letter “tech” format.)   Question 2: What's the top problem for utilities you work with today, and how do you advise they solve that problem? I am extremely fortunate to spend at least half of my job meeting and sharing with utilities around the world—every size, shape and type.  Delivering a compelling vision of what the industry is doing—and what the utility should be aiming for—is actually pretty straightforward.  Defining the roles of emerging technologies such as CX, IoT, AI and blockchain is more challenging, but a well-structured, comprehensive, real world scenario really helps their understanding and buy-in. However, the biggest problem for utilities, by far, is being unable to realize that vision and to properly leverage those technologies in any meaningful timeframe.  No utility is starting from a blank sheet.  Every start position is different; every market is different. The skills and budgets available are all different. In the most valuable strategy meetings I have with customers and prospects, we spend the last half-hour of our meeting white-boarding their current IT & business landscape and start to bring to life how it may evolve with new solutions and capabilities. (And you know when you have struck a chord when they want to take photos of the result! Sometimes with us all in the picture!) Overall, utilities need to own their own IT and business roadmaps.  Systems integrators will come and go. The utility will remain in place for decades.  So I strongly believe that we in Oracle should be partnering with customers—not just for the initial sale but throughout the delivery and beyond.    Question 3: What's your touchstone--the idea that you keep coming back to--and how do you apply it to what you do every day? Enthusiasm is infectious, and a well-crafted phrase can be devastating! Combine the two, and you can change minds—and change futures, too.   Mike Ballard, Vice President of Industry Strategy for Oracle Utilities, has been with Oracle for five years, coming over from EDF Energy, which happens to be where he met his wife Sally. They live in Devon with their two children Christopher and Emily. Our favorite “fun fact” about Mike: He once tried to drive from the UK to Australia in his Land Rover but was turned back in Pakistan due to military coup.

And that one word has options. It can be four (abbreviated) letters, or it can be longer. You’ll find the answer here somewhere. (We’ll even point it out.) But, first, let’s chat a little. We talk a...

American Gas Magazine April cover story: Take Six

With 4,000 employees, 3 million customers and operations in six states, Southern Company Gas’ recent CIS consolidation across six of its natural gas utilities was a major undertaking. But so are the benefits, from better customer interactions to greater employee satisfaction. A new customer care and billing system could be expected to achieve increased efficiency, lower costs, fewer errors and better customer interactions. But when six of the seven utilities of Southern Company Gas consolidated their customer information systems, the companies also began to see greater satisfaction among employees involved in the customer experience. That satisfaction was evident via increases in both the companies’ promotion rate and employee retention rate. “We did know there would be a change dynamic,” said Sandra Broughton, director of Customer Experience with Southern Company Gas. “Our goal was to not lose people, but we saw that even the rate of natural separations slowed down,” dropping 8 percentage points from the average 20 percent. That unexpected benefit sweetens the already positive results of a three-year project to transition from using two separate CIS’s and an expensive old mainframe to the Oracle Customer Care and Billing system, or CC&B.   GETTING STARTED The transition started in 2014 with a discovery phase and was completed in the last half of 2017. Five Southern Company Gas utilities—Elizabethtown Gas, Virginia Natural Gas, Florida City Gas, Elkton Gas and Chattanooga Gas, affectionately referred to internally as “the AGL5” in reference to the utility’s former name, AGL Resources—successfully consolidated their 11-year-old customer management application system and their 25-year-old Axiom CIS mainframe into the Oracle platform. That platform was already in use by the sixth local distribution company involved, Nicor Gas, which had adopted it in 2006, five years before becoming a Southern Company Gas subsidiary in 2011. Another Southern Company Gas subsidiary, Atlanta Gas Light, was not involved in the consolidation because of the deregulated natural gas market in Georgia. There, customers buy their gas directly from marketers. AGL provides the transportation service, maintains the distribution lines and bills the marketers, creating a need for its own stand-alone CIS. Once the successful transition went live during a three-day period in late August 2017, 900,000 customer accounts migrated to the Oracle system, adding to the 2.2 million accounts already in place with Nicor Gas. As complex as the project was, its goals were simple: to consolidate the field and customer information systems of the utilities in order to operate with greater efficiency, prepare for future growth, standardize and improve business processes, and ease the integration of new technology that might come along in the future.   COMPLEX PROJECT, COMPLEX ISSUES One of the first decisions needed was what CIS to use in order to bring together the differing systems. While the utility did some system exploration, Oracle’s CC&B was an easy choice since Nicor Gas was already using it successfully. “Nicor Gas’ internal experience with supporting CC&B since 2006 was a key factor in our implementation, as well as in handpicking external resources for key functional roles,” said Cindi Reyes, director of IT at Southern Company Gas. Next came the complex task of planning and starting the consolidation with the discovery phase, which began in March 2014. Employees at Nicor Gas and the AGL5 companies already had experience at successfully implementing new technology in-house, from their work establishing call centers in the 1990s and re-insourcing customer service, which had been outsourced to India in 2006. So, project leadership decided to organize and manage the CIS consolidation project with internal resources while ensuring that all locations’ and functions’ concerns were addressed. “We felt like we had the in-house expertise, anchored by Nicor Gas,” Broughton said, “but core team members from various locations and different functions were going to be impacted. From both an IT and business side, they had an equal voice at the table.” As in any major change, the project needed strong communications and change management systems in place to educate and align employees across the enterprise. The objective was to deliver clear, concise and targeted messages to engage Southern Company Gas employees and ensure they understood the changes taking place and when those changes would happen—and to provide training for those whose jobs would be affected. Considering the companies have nearly 4,000 employees, 3 million customers and operate in six states, some complex logistics would be involved. Southern Company Gas is based in Atlanta, but customers and employees of the six utility subsidiaries were located in Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida. But that was just part of the complexity. The age of the legacy system, multiple locations of core project team members, system and licensing constraints, 52 different data systems interfacing with the customer system, changes to customer account data, different regulatory requirements, differences in business processes and competing business initiatives added levels of complexity as well. And, since business must go on, changes and upgrades to other vital projects across the enterprise continued—separate from the CIS consolidation. Obviously, this was no small project. The organization called in more than 350 employees across the enterprise who would become key contributors for the project’s successful planning and execution. The cross-functional core team included staff members from departments including billing, call center, field operations, credit, collections and remittance, finance, resource management, construction operations, corporate communication, utility business systems and IT. One might think that such a large project would be implemented incrementally, with each company adopting the new CC&B system gradually to work through bugs and give people time to get accustomed to the new process. But the project team decided early on that a gradual transition would be more difficult and costly in the long run, deciding instead to “go live” with all the companies over a single weekend. The team divided the project into four phases: discovery, requirements gathering and fit gap, design, and development and testing. To keep everybody on track, the team developed five guiding principles: Understand and limit impacts to work volumes. Understand and limit impact to customers. Keep online performance and batch completion times equivalent to today’s. Understand changes and impacts to interfaces. Continue working as a team to meet project deadlines. The team broke the project up into manageable areas of focus, assigning a team of business, IT and other leaders to each track. After the kickoff in March 2014, the project teams went through the various steps to consolidate and customize the Oracle product to exactly fit their needs, working through 2015 and 2016 to achieve the objective of going live with the new system in the third quarter of 2017. “We conducted weeks of workshops with business partners to analyze unique, complex processes that we could improve through strategic customization,” said Kerry Hogan, director of Meter Reading and Billing for Southern Company Gas. “Identifying these areas for process improvement early on proved to pay off once we went live with our new system.” As the system was built and tested, adjusted and became closer to being ready, the team began working on a plan for the training necessary to teach the employees who would use the new system. “Internal resources were integral in developing the testing scenarios and training documentation. This was essential to meeting tight project deadlines,” said Hogan. The scope of the training included about 1,000 employees who had utilized the old customer management application and/or the Axiom CIS mainframe. The team conducted training on navigation, order processing, billing, meter reading, credit, collections and the new online help tool. Since knowledge retention for such a new program is vital, training classes were done with small groups of 10 to 12 students. The training used a blended style of instructor-led courses, computer-based modules and a “hands-on” environment. The team scheduled intense training to be as close as possible to implementation of the new system. The training team spent about 6,000 hours of development time and over 3,000 hours of classroom facilitation to prepare end users for the all-important “go live.” In all, they delivered 30,000 hours of training. Along with training, the core team established an Ambassador program to support communication and change management surrounding the project. Ambassadors, selected from the business and each LDC, served as communications liaisons. Ambassadors traveled the service areas and conducted quarterly updates to provide new information on the status of the project and the process and terminology changes, and to demonstrate the system as it was being developed. “We formed a team of ambassadors at all locations, established regular meetings to share pertinent and real-time information, and facilitated roadshows across our footprint for executives, super users and impacted employees,” said Hogan. Meanwhile, technology partners, who were assigned or loaned business resources, logged more than 130,000 hours to design, develop and test the new system and its integration with other applications. Dozens of employees were dedicated full-time to support the project, plus scores of people who contributed part-time.   GOING LIVE With nearly 40 months of work and tens of thousands of hours put into the consolidation, anticipation began building for the third weekend in August, when the team decided it would be ready to go live. While employees across the enterprise were kept informed of the consolidation project and state regulators were kept up to speed, the company chose care in talking about the consolidation with customers. “We wanted the implementation for the customers to be seamless,” Broughton explained. “Customers don’t see your internal system, nor do they want to be impacted when you change your system. They want to be able to get their service and pay their bills without any problems.” Company websites informed customers that their ability to interact with the company electronically would be limited during the three-day go-live period of Friday, Aug. 18, through Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. “When we did mention the project to customers, we took the opportunity to let them know the system upgrade would allow us to expand on our billing and payment options,” Hogan added. During the go live, customers could still call in and make service requests, but call center employees handled the requests the old-fashioned way—with a modified manual approach—saving the non-emergency service changes and orders to enter once the new system came up. Perhaps similar to what many gas utilities did during the Y2K flip from 1999 to the year 2000, Southern Company Gas utilities did extensive planning in preparing for the changeover. More than 200 employees staffed nine war rooms around the companies’ service territory, stationing key personnel in IT, business and support roles across project tracks and business functions. The preparation paid off, and four of the war rooms were able to close by day four. As expected, there were some issues. On the first Monday of the new system, customer care center call-handling times for customer service and emergency response were slower than they had been under the old CIS. “But with focused floor support and side-by-side coaching from the ‘war room’ staff, service levels rose from 76 percent on Day 1 to near 90 percent the first week,” Broughton said. “We had little hiccups that needed fixing, but they were not major, by any means. I think we planned, and we delivered.” The companies were thrilled—and relieved—with the success of the consolidation and transition from the old CIS to the CC&B system. But it wasn’t luck or happenstance that made the transition so smooth. It was lots of planning and work. Company leaders credit a high level of leadership and employee engagement at all levels in terms of diagramming the needs, assigning key roles, clarifying roles and assignments as the project progressed, identifying gaps and making organizational changes to fill those gaps. Of course, the business readiness planning, change management, communications planning and the many training sessions and workshops throughout the four-phase project kept people informed and on track. Now, the Southern Company Gas utilities have a consistent CIS across six utilities, enabling shared contact center coverage and reducing contractor support costs. The system is less costly than the two systems in use before, and that old mainframe is being retired after many years of service. Billing, credit, reporting and other direct customer-contact experiences are improved. The project came in on budget and slightly ahead of schedule. But perhaps the most visible proof of the success lies in that satisfaction among employees. “Employees are now more adept and comfortable with remote work teams, collaborating via Skype, video conference and other electronic forums,” Broughton said. “Functional and geographic silos disintegrated with this CIS consolidation.”   This article was the American Gas Magazine cover story for the April 2018 issue of the magazine. Reprinted here with express permission. 

With 4,000 employees, 3 million customers and operations in six states, Southern Company Gas’ recent CIS consolidation across six of its natural gas utilities was a major undertaking. But so are the...

4 notes on innovative grid restoration from 3 utilities

Hurricanes and other extreme weather that blow out masses of power infrastructure in giant sweeps seems to happen in clusters—as if by some serious, if sad, planning. Utilities may go a decade without a hurricane coming only to find two or three hit them in a year with a particularly bad season. Three utility executives—two in the U.S. and one from Europe—sat down on the last day of Oracle Industry Connect 2018 to talk about the storms they’ve weathered (literally) and what they’ve learned from those storms (figuratively). While they all noted that there are no silver bullets to take out the monster of mass outages, they do have some steeped-in-experience advice. Here are the top four tidbits from their conversation: 1. Simplify the restoration process. Those automated items that you rely on during regular weather patterns are going to be overloaded during a big outage event. So, having a streamlined version that you can tap into during a large event could save you tech time, customer satisfaction and employee frustration. Some concepts: During a mass outage, don’t do individual tickets. Do mass ones by geography until post event. Color online maps in regions rather than, again, individual houses and businesses, allowing for a bit more elbow time as you work. 2. Make field communications the top priority. In the everyday world, field services is important but not the top of the hierarchy. When large areas of your geography have no power, your field services people (and the outside crews you bring in to help) are now front-line soldiers in the battle back to civilization. So, give them the best weapons for the fight, and making their ability to be aware—situationally, regionally, tech-wise and team-wise—constant will be the smartest way to get back to the status quo your customer is used to (and that your customer expects). 3. Educate the end customer and your people, too. When? Before a storm hits. Shift messaging from prep for the storm to restoration information, including feasible timing. Train and retrain staff to deal with customer emotions and reactions. And then, during the event, have sympathy. People out of power get upset. That’s natural (and, by the way, they’ll likely now text you or go through your app rather than call). 4. Go superhero with your tech. Smarter outage management systems that focus on both communication with customers and having all those distributed assets talking, too, is key to start this up. It may take some trial and error to get the equation right, but there is no doubt that better, faster, newer is going to help. Give the right tech people the ability to put their right tech into top gear during a storm event, and you will likely find they bring you real-time info, forecast info, outage info in practical ways that you never would have been able to plan for (or thought of asking for). Sit those data scientists in with the GIS peeps and see what they can uncover, for example. After all, the word “innovation” has good connotation for a good reason: You get good results. To quote one of the speakers today, “Innovation drives you toward reliability. They are not mutually exclusive.”   Read more from Oracle Industry Connect 2018: In a New York minute: 2 quick (but important) takeaways from Oracle Industry Connect today Spitballing energy challenges and potential solutions at the speed of light Lessons in customer behavior from PwC and J.D. Power Choice is pushing the utilities industry into an era of customer consciousness On Billy Joel, the New York state of energy and the next Oracle Industry Connect NYPA’s CEO on restoration, reform and REV Passion, progress and practical lessons from New York’s Energy Czar Who is the true New York energy customer? An electric legacy: Con Edison’s Ketschke on his business, his city and his dad

Hurricanes and other extreme weather that blow out masses of power infrastructure in giant sweeps seems to happen in clusters—as if by some serious, if sad, planning. Utilities may go a decade without...