“Automate from the roots to the leaves”, was the advice of Roland Stader, Head of Energy Automation, Telecommunications & IT at Germany’s Stadtwerke Konstanz during an energy presentation in 2015.
Stader described how municipal energy company Stadtwerke Konstanz was adopting an intensively top-down approach, from the grid to meters, as part of its digital transformation process.
In the two years since, the edge of the grid (the leaves on Stader’s analogic tree) has continued to grow out with the development of smart home and Internet of Things applications.
And accompanied by an increased energy customer demand to plug their own devices into the grid, is an expectation of more personalised and efficient interactions with their energy company.
Distribution system operators can no longer think of digital transformation as the integration of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT). There is a third prong - customer technology (CT).
Caitlin Aburrow, Director, Product Marketing and Strategy at Oracle Utilities, agrees that the dialogue has moved beyond IT and OT convergence.
“That was the first step for digital enterprises and was motivated by an asset management objective. The next step has to be integrating customer technology.”
Aburrow explains how Oracle has studied other more digitally advanced industries such as finance, healthcare and telecoms, and seen how businesses within those sectors have evolved towards customer centricity.
The financial services sector, says Aburrow, is a good comparison for utilities as both depend heavily on serving the end user, are beholden to regulators and “have lots at stake”.
“These two industries have to balance their responsibility to respectively protect people’s money and deliver power and clean water with a push to customer centricity.
“The financial services sector has done a good job of recognising mobile devices and fingerprint technology as CT capable of reshaping how they interact with their customers.”
Customer technology, defined as a system enabling customer services or a consumer device such as a smart home appliance, is part of what Martin Dunlea, Oracle Utilities’ Senior Director Industry Strategy, views as the increasing number of new and complex business processes faced by distribution system operators.
Speaking ahead of an Engerati webinar (The digitally connected utility - from network to consumer), Dunlea said the traditional energy value chain used to be a simple linear model in terms of how the various utility business functions were articulated. No longer, he says. Distribution companies need “visibility across the entire grid. Extending their view beyond SCADA and all the way to the edge.”
Bringing the “whole grid under one control” is achieved with one platform to manage the distribution grid, including any distributed resources as well as the way your employees operate. Dunlea says: “Utilities can then leverage these two to provide a common and progressive platform in terms of how you manage customer interactions.”
Customer technology integration in utility systems
So what is the best approach to IT-OT-CT integration?
Oracle Utilities’ Aburrow says that as every utility is at a different point in its digitalisation journey, the Oracle approach is to evaluate a utility based on three key areas: information technology, workplace systems and customer experience.
“We begin by looking to see if the IT systems are capable of integration. Are they built for scale and flexibility or are they a homegrown solution? Systems should be able to pivot and take on new data as part of the convergence process.”
Oracle takes a similar approach to assessing operational data, such as from meter data management systems. “Can the operational systems handle automation is a key foundational question when planning this type of integration,” says Aburrow.
The move into CT convergence, by comparison, is more straightforward. Once a distribution system operator has all the systems in place - what Oracle calls “a leader in digital convergence” - they can decide how to draw value from it through customer programmes and services.
Dunlea agrees that the hard work of IT/OT convergence in forcing change to siloed internal departments is not an issue with CT. “As technology platforms and solutions in general improve, it will be somewhat easier to take advantage of advanced digital solutions such as customer experience platforms.”