In the utilities industry we face the challenge of optimising the life on ageing assets and operationally, constantly improving actionable understanding and management of cause & effects on service quality and resilience. The infrastructure is under attack from nature, the environment, the weather and a host of other man-made problems.
This article explores the challenges to and opportunities for accelerating adoption of ‘system wide integrated intelligence’ in network infrastructure.
Currently a number of operational decisions are made through tacit expertise and knowledge of process, as well as historical or predictive analytics and process/event modelling. While this is increasingly sophisticated, utilities are constantly questioning for a more ‘real’ truth.
We are now in a position where technology could help us see the network through data in a way not feasible 20 years ago …creating visible networks.
‘So what?’ and ‘Why should we change?’
+ADD is involved in a host of related projects from problem definition to enabling experimentation, solution and business case prototyping to tender support and trial management.
At every stage these healthy questions are asked, especially since in most organisations there is already an overwhelming amount of data.
It is inevitably not used to best effect due to various constraints including difficulties of access, inconsistent quality and lack of resource to turn it into actionable insight. Beyond this new insight leads to demands for change in processes and systems (a barrier in itself).
Our response to why we should forge forward is simple as network visibility enables:
More accurate prediction of issues
Proactive control processes and offers a foundation for de-manning and process automation
Better operational planning to avoid network stress
Improvements in asset management and redundancy/ repair and replacement planning
Better intelligence for validation of decisions, business cases and regulatory reporting
Reduced reliance on tacit knowledge and associated risks and errors
This leads reduced incidents of supply interruption, reduced leakage, flooding, fewer works or service quality complaint events to cost efficiencies, better service value, and happier customers.
What are the problems in question?
The truth is many parts of these networks are essentially invisible apart from at critical operations, process points and for regulatory monitoring requirements. In some cases the exact location of infrastructure isn't really known either.
Shockingly utilities …like the rest of humanity operate in an imperfect world where there are too many variables, not enough ‘quality’ data and there is too much to improve with not enough resource.
Making decisions on how to prioritise works and allocate limited resource effectively is complex and there simply is not enough information on which to develop effective insight and establish the best decision-making processes.
Enhancing operational performance and resilience is an organisation wide challenge with diverse departments and stakeholders involved.
Looking at the diverse nature of insights in each vertical department that ‘could’ be useful is a challenge in itself, let alone considering the issue from a system wide, multi directorate and ‘integrated intelligence’ perspective.
What is the role of ‘network intelligence?’
It is better to answer this as a series of questions. Some are longstanding while others (enabled by technology) are new…
How can we ensure product and service quality and deliver quality beyond customer expectations?
How can we realistically optimise asset life and management; making better decisions on repair, maintenance and replacement?
How can we de-risk and make better operational decisions, for example reducing asset stress, improving supply resilience and reducing failure events?
How can we create efficiencies and better value for our customers through longer term planning, process redesign, automation and systems efficiencies?
There are of course a host of practical questions, but they often fall into these domains.
Breaking down silo thinking and barriers to change
In real terms there are a number of barriers to effectively adopting integrated intelligence solutions. Technology is the least of these, we need to focus on people, processes and culture.
In the network operator, ambition can be inhibited by traditional asset governance and directorate performance management models.
It’s fair to say managers are under pressure to make ‘the right’ decisions with clear justification. This business case approach does not accommodate investment in experimentation and can lead to a focus on existing proven technology adoption and a risk averse culture.
Lack of clear ambition and policy regards ‘integrated intelligence’ is can be an issue as the internal stakeholders are diverse and leadership across these different silos are understandably unclear on ‘integrated intelligence’ potential and the level of commitment they should provide in their plans and budgets.
Integrated intelligence is the foundation for disruptive change, offering potential for actionable insight, automation and de-manning systems and processes. This is can be a concern particularly in more sensitive operations which are bastions of data, knowledge and expertise. Intelligence may be seen as a prelude to change in roles, teams and responsibilities.
It is very unclear who should own and operate principal intelligence in this new world. While some suggest it is hype and just an extension of existing solutions others recognise the impact of intelligence on future business and service delivery models to be disruptive.
Supply chain is less than collaborative, often focussing on the value of their specific component technology or narrow value propositions. This leads to poor integration and even barriers to co-design and solution thinking.
The supply chain is converging on the potential in intelligence leading to a confusing array of stakeholders offering overlapping ‘solution component’ service models, consultancy and transformation agenda’s. Rather than recognising the value of collaborating many are going beyond their domain and seeking to offer end to end services as new topical tenders emerge.
There is clearly a role for ‘pairs of safe hands’ in supply chain and solutions integrators to create new business and service delivery models open to new communities of sensor, telemetry, data management and analytics enterprise. Inevitably the true value of these investments is in integration of data and creating new insights.
Technology is flourishing and this is leading to diverse telemetry, protocols, standards as well as a myriad of sensor solutions and technology families. Decision makers fear selecting the wrong solution there are concerns over technology sunsetting and redundancy.
Not surprisingly there is mixed perception on the required level of policy guidance required from the regulator in this domain. Too little can mean slow commitment and risk to service and regulated performance metrics; too much could constrain innovation and different thinking that offers step-change in performance.
This IS a transformative movement !
We can see the challenge is not so much about technology but rather defining ambition, goals, priorities and enabling collaboration both in utilities, across network operators and in the supply chain.
This is an operational and digital transformation agenda and should be treated as such with strong leadership, vision and clear alignment across departments. Innovation teams in this domain can be a constrained to focussing on short term topical agenda’s, business case POC’s (Proof of concepts) and longer term advocacy of research and technology development.
This IS about enabling experimentation co-creation of new use cases and collaborative solution and business case design. This is NOT about selecting winning technologies but de-risking intelligence supply and service models.
Vendors need to consider redundancy and change in use cases that are inevitable and new insights are discovered from merging new and existing data. New business models and a move away from capex thinking and rationale is critical to avoid that capitalisation demands halting change and operational transformation. Supply chain MUST step up and offer validation for opex solutions and square the circle of impact on utility financial modelling through new and creative service models.
Another key factor in enabling change is culture and response to system change propositions. Business modelling must grasp the thorny issue of both internal process and system changes, automation potential and change to operational processes. To this end, integrated thinking and rationale across utility departments is the next battle front. There are plenty of champions within the utilities and they need help and assistance in realising the message and making clear arguements for integrated approaches.
The biggest barrier is lack of realised collaborative intent as borne out of all of +ADD’s work to date in this field. This is simply a lack of real collaboration versus the intent to get involved. When it comes down to it, many simply don’t see the commercial value. There can be short sighted concerns over loss of ownership of perceived opportunities or fear of competitive action.
While we are sure the proliferation of new technologies will continue and that we will see new disruptive innovations this is not the principle barrier. (I personally hope we see some practical deployment of battery-less, wireless energy harvesting and more solid-state low-cost sensors in currently seemingly impossible water quality fields.).
The real short-term goal is to co-create and establish a clear shared vision on the potential for system wide integrated intelligence.
The vision needs to break-down into tangible actionable strategic and topical roadmaps with demonstrable benefits across departments.
Like all aspects of the challenge highlighted in this article, this cannot be achieved by one or even a few organisation collaborating. This needs to be a concerted and coordinated effort involving both utilities and supply chain.
We are delighted to have already secured some excellent collaborations enabling open debate and works to shape the agenda. We hope to discover more with such a rich array of forward thinking and ambitious global brands seeking to enable transformation in these sectors.
If you would like to discuss how to get involved, please do not hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org and lets start the conversation.