Easy Access to Data May Hold Ticket to Utilities Success

Easy Access to Data May Hold Ticket to Utilities` Success

By Teresa Hansen, Managing Editor

Any of today`s utilities have taken advantage of technology by automating manual processes. Through automation these utilities have achieved substantial cost savings. However, they now realize that in order to achieve even greater benefits, they must move beyond process improvements. Utilities are recognizing that the data obtained by and stored in information systems is extremely valuable.

Gaining quick, easy access to accurate information about customers, competitors and infrastructure is key to success. Isolated systems, no matter how much they have improved a process, will not continue to improve service and efficiency if their data is not shared. Information located on a mainframe computer, information stored on PCs and real-time information held in systems such as SCADA or AM/FM/GIS must be made readily accessible throughout the utility organizations. A utility`s stored data will retain its value well into the future. In fact, many industry experts predict that the right data will soon become worth more than the installed system. While technology will change and information systems will come and go, data will remain vital and become a utility`s long-term asset. Most industry experts agree that to fully realize data`s value, systems must be integrated.

Integration Through Upgrade or Replacement

“Data is the core of any system,” said Jim Cypert, Logica Energy & Utilities` vice president of marketing (Logica Energy & Utilities is a division or Logica Inc., an independent systems integration, consulting and software firm). “If a system is replaced or upgraded, the data must remain intact,” he said.

According to Cypert, usually one of two scenarios comes to play when utilities decide to integrate databases. Some will incorporate new systems into existing legacy systems. Legacy systems are systems that have already exhausted, or are nearing the end of, their useful life. However, these systems are extremely beneficial to utilities because they contain substantial amounts of data. Cypert said that most utilities attempt to make the integration process with legacy systems simple, eliminating as much data entry as possible and making the system easy to use. “The main goal is to make the integrated system user-friendly,” said Cypert. Ultimately, successful integration means that the user can move about from one system to another without having to worry about boundaries between the systems.

Besides integrating with legacy systems, according to Cypert, many utilities are looking at installing entirely new systems–integrating “best of read” applications. “The trend we`re seeing is that in preparation for competition and unbundling, utilities are installing the best systems possible,” he said. Many installations consist of multiple systems being installed and integrated at the same time. Some installations are complete replacements of the old legacy systems.

Cypert believes that unbundling distribution from the integrated utility is driving the need for many of these new systems. The distribution company will be looking for the right tool to lower cost, improve customer service and generate revenue, he said. A tool that obtains the right data and provides easy access to that data will be required.

Additional Reasons to Integrate and Upgrade

In addition to preparing for competition and unbundling, Cypert cited other reasons for upgrading information systems and integrating data. Maintenance is driving some utilities to switch to newer integrated systems. “Traditionally older customer information systems and work management systems were mainframe-based. These systems had to be maintained by internal information technology (IT) personnel. Today`s utilities cannot afford to staff an IT department that is capable of maintaining numerous mainframe-based systems,” Cypert said. “Today the idea is to come in with new application sets that can be installed quickly. While most utilities are still maintaining IT systems in-house, the new client-server systems make the task much easier.”

Today`s systems are much different than old systems, which operated in COBAL or some other complicated language that few people understood. Newer software packages offered today contain better interface tools to other systems, such as standard query language relational databases. In addition, most of these systems operate on standard Microsoft Windows platforms. This is an important feature because the software is similar to other types of Windows-based software that is familiar to most users. “Today`s packages give the user capability to tailor the system. The user doesn`t need nearly as much IT support,” Cypert said

Utilities` recent merger and acquisition activities have also increased the need to integrate databases. Information that was once only needed by one utility must now be shared with others. Since utility mergers often result in staff reductions, the need for a common, efficient system for providing customer service, implementing system improvements, and managing internal projects and work assignments becomes even more important. In addition, the year 2000 dilemma is another driver of system upgrades. “If utilities are already having to fix or upgrade systems to deal with the year 2000, many are using this as an opportunity to install new systems,” Cypert said.

Turnkey Projects

Another trend is an increase in utilities` requests for turnkey projects. Utilities are becoming less interested in choosing each individual system and system supplier. Rather they are now determining their data needs, relaying their needs to a supplier and relying on that supplier to provide the tools necessary to meet those needs.

Cypert said that initially Logica was only requested to provide its flagship product, work management information system (WMIS). However, recently more and more utilities are requesting multiple applications. “A good segment of the market is now looking at full turnkey projects for new system installation,” he said. Logica`s integration strategy still centers around WMIS but it now includes integrating WMIS with AM/FM, preventive maintenance/materials/purchasing, mobile computing, financial programs, outage management systems and utility call centers (see figure).

Logica, like many other companies that support utilities, is beginning to work with other companies in order to offer complete solutions–integrated, multi-system installations. The company has worked with several utilities, helping them upgrade and integrate systems to meet today`s business challenges.

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