Utilities manage vast arrays of complex and finely tuned infrastructure. Retaining the visibility required to keep this running at peak performance has historically been a near impossibility, requiring countless manual and costly processes. Achieving this goal is essential to delivering a faultless and affordable service to customers. Digital transformation is creating new possibilities for detailed control and better service results.
Insightive.tv: What does digital transformation mean to you, what does it mean to Electricity North West?
Paul: Digital transformation means an enormous amount of change throughout our business. We are on a massive journey. However, we don’t actually have a ‘digital transformation’ programme — that is not how I engage with my internal stakeholders. What matters to me, and what matters across the business is improving operations and delivering a better and cheaper service to customers. We have a ‘business change’ agenda. A large part of that is ‘digital’, but that is not the ultimate focus. ‘Digital’ is such a ubiquitous and broadly applied term that it has come to mean very little.
Insightive.tv: What are the largest business change programmes you are operating that depend on digital technology?
Paul: Our oldest and still largest digital transformation programme relates to the control of our network. The biggest driver of our expenditure, by far, is the management of our infrastructure. Creating efficiencies in that management enables us to pass on savings to our customers. Digital technology has always been the answer to doing that better. But, to be effective, it has to be hooked into business processes.
We began by placing digital monitoring devices on infrastructure assets. We now have thousands of control devices spread across the northwest of England sitting on our infrastructure.
From there, the natural step is to hook those devices together using a network and platform, allowing that data to be centrally accessed. Over the years, that has turned into what we call ‘our internet of things’ — IoT type infrastructure that isn’t actually connected to the wider internet but rather interconnected on a private network. This same network has become the focal point for our latest projects to fundamentally revolutionise how we control the entire electrical network. This involves the application of artificial intelligence algorithms to make the most use possible out of the data generated by those monitors. We currently have a “self healing” network system running that is shadowing the current system. It is in the final product test stage and set to go live next year.
Insightive.tv: Where does that system progress from there, what will that allow you to accomplish?
Paul: The next step is hooking the system into wider networks with external devices. That will provide more information. Part of making this happen is building a platform in which different APIs can sit.
We are also using digital to interface directly with our customers. We are developing an online customer platform that can pair with our CRM system. We want to be able to take all of the information about how our network is performing, and then present that to our customers for their benefit and utilisation, as well as internal use.
Digital transformation is an organic process. As you develop the capability to link more functions together, you start to exploit more and more opportunities. The application of digital technology generates data. That data then provides insights on systems and customers, allowing you to guide the further application of digital technology. For example, that was a big part of the push behind smart meters and is why we focused on that early.
Ultimately, all of this information allows us to utilise our infrastructure more efficiently and deliver more consistent results to end customers at a cheaper cost. That is what it is all about.
Insightive.tv: How do you see things changing in the future and what is needed to deliver change — what lessons can the industry take from your success?
Paul: One of the big changes we are trying to make in order to accelerate our adoption of new technology is a move away from ‘enterprise systems’. They are too slow and expensive to change. Instead, we are looking to enable smaller and team-based management and control systems. Key to that is a central platform and database that can interface with a wide number of additional platforms — be that asset data, customer data, financial data, etc. That will allow us to retain interconnectivity but take a quite ‘fleet of foot’ approach to applications and providers.
To do that, we are encouraging a new generation of smaller, innovative and fast-moving application providers to work with us, and are moving away from large encompassing systems. We are already working in partnership with a number of organisations that have an overlapping vision. This has allowed us to take advantage of agile test and learn strategies.
There are a lot of different companies in the utility sector, and I think most of them understand the need for change. But, everyone finds it hard — because it is hard, particularly for large organisations. You have to go far beyond embracing digital technology. You have to have a vision and determination to cut through the natural resistance that only grows as an organisation gets larger and older.
Development is empowered by switched on employees who understand the business. If your staff understands the processes that need support with good change analytics, they will be able to communicate that knowledge to developers.
To serve customers well, you need good information. You need to understand them and provide them with relevant information. In addition to a flawless service, that is what customers want. That is one of the reasons we have put a lot of energy into developing our CRM system. Integrating that with our control management system will allow us to easily deliver messages about what is happening in the network and present that to our agents in a way that they can share it with our customers. Everything comes back to customers — that is what people need to remember.
Paul Bircham is the Commercial and Support Services Director at Electricity North West. He is tasked with wide-reaching responsibilities covering asset management, investment programmes and commercial functions. This places him in charge of Electricity North West’s ambitious project to combine IoT sensors, private platforms and AI to revolutionise the way electrical infrastructure is controlled, maintained and related to by customers. Insightive.tv sat down with Paul to discuss the future of the industry.
Electricity North West maintains electrical infrastructure across northwest England on behalf of suppliers, putting them in a position to optimise the customer experiences of over 5 million people through the novel use of technology.