by Linda Easter Davis
In the past five years, Southside Electric Cooperative has seen the number of accounts it services increase by 73 percent, from 30,000 to 52,000. For the south-central Virginia co-op, this growth presented business and IT challenges. The mission behind the company’s information technology strategy is to ensure uninterrupted service to a growing customer base, but Southside Electric’s previously unconnected software applications and technology systems resulted in service delays and reporting errors that affected the co-op’s service to its member/consumers.
Southside Electric uses six databases to store information on outages, dispatches, electricity usage, geographic mapping, billing and accounts receivable-and the databases were not connected to each other. When, for example, the cooperative mistakenly sent letters to the wrong batch of customers regarding a planned outage, the ripple effect on the call centers, dispatch teams and billing department resulted in widespread frustration.
Southside Electric Cooperative decided to evaluate the way the co-op’s investments in technology were aligned with its business goals of reducing costs and ensuring customers are not without electricity. The resulting decision was to create a service oriented architecture (SOA).
The SOA plan
Southside Electric’s SOA strategy was two-fold. The first priority was to bring together the CEO and business leaders with the cooperative’s IT professionals to build consensus on the co-op’s new direction. The second part of the strategy was to link and recycle Southside Electric’s myriad applications and data sources that track customer records, outage reports, automated meter management, geographical maps, billing and accounts receivable records and repair truck dispatch information, as well as internal business processes such as finance, human resources and procurement.
The first critical step on the path to success was the creation of a cross-cooperative team representing each part of the business. By doing that, various needs are clearly understood, business goals are met, and the entire Southside Electric community realizes gains from its investments.
Using IBM WebSphere software and services to build its SOA and integrate its various applications, Southside Electric was able to aggregate information from separate systems, giving employees a single, comprehensive, real-time view of customer accounts and engineering resources. Now, when information is updated in one system, the changes are reflected automatically in the others. Additionally, Southside Electric was able to easily integrate new applications including Qualcomm’s OmniTracs satellite communications for real time mobile data and ESRI Geographical Information System (GIS) maps to connect the field service team to the office.
Benchmarks of success
To measure its success, Southside Electric benchmarked the response time to customer service calls, the overall productivity of staff, and the amount of its capital credits dividend that is shared among its 52,500 customers. (Southside Electric Cooperative is a not-for-profit, member-owned electric distribution cooperative. Unlike a publicly held or government-owned utility, an electric cooperative provides its service at cost and any funds above operating expenses are credited back to its members.)
Southside Electric has realized significant benefits through an SOA such as reduced administrative work, streamlined customer service processes, and expansion of the company’s capacity for growth. Service work has been reduced from three days to one; data entry that previously required 30 minutes is now complete within seconds; and the co-op’s automated service order system is three times faster than the old paper-based system.
As for the third benchmark, the amount of capital credits dividend shared with its customers, Southside Electric Cooperative’s new SOA-supported business strategy helped the co-op deliver a $1.2 million capital credits dividend to its 52,500 customers for 2006.
Another important benefit of Southside Electric’s SOA strategy is the company’s ability to protect IT investments by recycling many of its existing software applications without compromising productivity or customer service. Through standards-based technology and services expertise, Southside Electric was able to integrate legacy applications and recycle its existing software while seeing dramatic improvements in overall operations. Now employees are better able to focus on their jobs instead of filling out forms or waiting for information. This has resulted in better service for the co-op’s membership-the ultimate goal.
Linda Easter Davis is the information systems supervisor at Southside Electric Cooperative. Davis is part of the cooperative’s information technology team that led the company’s transformation to adopt a service oriented architecture (SOA).