Montana Powers new CIS beats Y2K, unbundling deadlines

Dave Johnson

VP-Distribution Services

Montana Power Co.

Unbundling utility charges to support deregulation and Y2K demands converged on our legacy customer information system (CIS) almost simultaneously in late 1997. Under the state of Montana`s deregulation rules, our combination utility would be required to provide an unbundled bill to all Montana Power customers, regardless of whether they chose an alternate energy provider or continued to purchase energy from us. On top of that, our legacy system was 10 years old and not Y2K compliant. Without enough resources to address these challenges in such a limited time frame, we started the search for a new CIS.

After interviewing numerous CIS vendors, Montana Power signed a contract with a software firm late in 1997. It was a false start. With numerous problems and unsatisfactory progress, we called a halt in November 1998. Back at square one, the project team launched another search for a CIS provider who could meet the rapidly approaching deadlines for unbundled bills and Y2K.

Ready in 57 days

By outsourcing our hardware and software operations, Orcom Solutions guaranteed we could implement by our target date and guaranteed service levels. With penalties for non-performance, we would have control over the service delivery process.

Orcom and IBM together provided managed operations service, in which the software and hardware are accessed over a high-availability network, with redundant backup operating 24 hours a day. Orcom would also handle bill print and mailing. By taking advantage of this instant infrastructure, we would dramatically reduce implementation time. Using the Enterprise Customer Information System (E-CIS), we would continue to operate our own call center, payment processing and credit and collections processes.

True to their word, Orcom, working closely with our specialists, had their E-CIS operating in a production mode for our choice customers in a record 57 days. While everyone breathed a sigh of relief, achieving that milestone was only the first hurdle. We still had imminent deadlines for moving all of our customers to the new system and beating the Y2K deadline.

The scramble to beat the ticking clock included a conversion of our existing customer base to the new system. That process required many long hours but paid off in a partial implementation that met our most urgent needs only six months after the project`s first phase was completed. The system`s new unbundled bill format contains a summary of energy charges and account activity, as well as a breakout of individual costs for services such as supply, transmission, distribution, competitive transition charges and universal systems benefit charges. As deregulation unfolds in Montana and momentum for customer choice builds, outsourcing will allow us to implement new strategies quickly and add new products and services.

Lessons learned

One of the key factors that contributed to our ability to meet tight deadlines was the core Montana Power employee team dedicated to the CIS implementation project. To achieve a very short, streamlined implementation, we set expectations early on to focus on mandatory items for our go-live and defer non-essential items. We established and lived by the go-live checklist, so all the players could easily determine the status of the project at any time.

Outsourcing hardware and software operations was a major factor to achieving our goals. The Application Services Provider model used by Orcom enabled us to use our internal resources more effectively, and coordinate closely with Orcom`s team. Also, since Montana Power did not have to build a costly in-house infrastructure, we avoided the pitfalls of a long and cumbersome implementation.

Dave Johnson is vice president-distribution services for Montana Power Co., a diversified energy and telecommunications company based in Butte, Mont.

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