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"Montage was fantastic in terms of adjusting as we went by. It was a shared risk, shared reward kind of project"
EA Networks, Mid-Canterbury’s lines company, is an innovative player in a traditional business. The electricity industry is undergoing constant technological change that will bring major disruptions. The company naturally wants to take part.
EA had to ask itself: ‘Does our business have the necessary information systems and project management skills in place?’ The answer was no, so they called in Montage, Christchurch-based specialists in Business Intelligence (BI) and Programme/Project Management (PMO). Today EA Networks know they’re at the leading edge, ready for an exciting future.
EA Networks (EAN) had been operating for decades before it was introduced to Montage.
It began as a power board in 1923. Over time, reforms transformed the electricity industry at all levels throughout the country and ended existing generation, retail and distribution arrangements. Electricity Ashburton Ltd was formed to run Mid-Canterbury’s line and distribution business, trading today as EA Networks.
Unusually, the business became a co-operative owned by the people it supplied. Today that’s almost 17,500 consumers and the Ashburton District Council. The company has about 125 staff, managing a region of over 6200 square kilometres. It has built and maintained some 3000km of lines, both underground and overhead.
Change has been part of business life since the 1970s, much due to irrigation for Mid-Canterbury’s farmers. That growth accelerated from 2000 when the company’s capacity grew from 40 megawatts to about 200 megawatts. EA Networks – the name was adopted in 2012 - had to build, build, build to keep up.
Its co-operative nature with an emphasis on community led to ventures big and small. It was a cornerstone investor in a joint venture with farmers in the Barrhill Chertsey Irrigation scheme, built to irrigate about 13,300 hectares. Without EAN’s help, the scheme would not have proceeded. “It was a catalyst to secure the water and get the scheme up and running,” says Chief Executive Gordon Guthrie. Since completion, EAN is selling its holding to the farmers who will directly benefit from its operations.
In 2008, when a need arose to improve communication between sub-stations, EAN opted to install high-speed fibre optic network. Making the pipe bigger gave people along its path access to the network.
Similar thinking existed when building data centres. EAN required a highly-robust infrastructure and opened up the facilities for others to use, including the Ashburton District Council.
The company has been through a long phase of huge growth. That, Gordon says, is flattening out. It diversified within essentially the same business model. But the industry was continuing to change, thanks to evolving technologies, and that change would be disruptive.
EAN needed to look beyond being a traditional lines company doing a reliable job of keeping up power to consumers. Jeremy Adamson, EAN Commercial Manager, summed up the future: “We know the disruption is coming. What it looks like - who knows?”
One change EA Networks embraced was providing ultrafast broadband via fibre. However, bigger changes loom including electric cars. Governments around the world are setting targets for the demise of the internal combustion engine. So far, EAN has installed three charging stations in Ashburton, Rakaia and Methven to support such vehicles.
Solar panels are already commonplace. Network batteries could service a small farming community to ensure continuous delivery of energy during an outage. Consumer batteries are another possibility as the battery can be charged off-peak to obtain cheaper electricity and release that during the peak.
EA Networks have to watch all aspects of the technology closely. Significant network benefits could follow including network resilience, reliability, peak reduction, fault response management, customer satisfaction and pricing.
These opportunities required a new way of looking at the business, moving from asset-centric, the company’s traditional and trusted way of doing business, to customer-centric.
Every development has support the core business. Does it support customer engagement, or make the company relevant to the consumer in the future? How could EA Networks change its systems and approach to consumers to make sure they remain relevant in a fast-changing world?
Something else had to happen before the potential of a changing world could be recognised. EAN had to look at their own systems, many of which were at the end of their life cycle. The company pondered, Jeremy said, “how can we make this machine work better so that it’s fit for the future?”
They didn’t want to see potential in an opportunity only to find their internal processes let them down.
Gordon Guthrie has been EAN’s CEO for 17 years. His company had been at the forefront of change he enjoyed, and he wants to stay there. In 2015, he knew they needed some help to do that.
EAN were a typical organisation with legacy systems. They had databases all across the organisation, holding the information they were designed for but they didn’t share it very well. They needed to pull that information into one place so that they could use it for analysis.
EAN could then develop and drive insights into decision-making and planning so they knew what was happening electrically in the network and analyse that with financial and other sources of data.
Said Jeremy: “We have nodes out in the network which are grabbing information every five seconds. But we haven’t had the tools to use or manage it. Our data management wasn’t very good. We didn’t have in-house a lot of those skills that you need around data management or even designing those systems.
“We knew that what we had was not fit for purpose going forward. Nothing was broken, it just wasn’t particularly efficient.
They needed a single source of the truth, quality, reliable data, to do what they did better.
EAN approached Montage, the Christchurch-based specialists in Business Intelligence (BI), and developed a partnership that continues to this day.
Leading the project was Duncan Turner, Montage’s Practice Lead for BI and PMO. The first step was to undertake a BI Discovery, through which Montage would go through the business, a consulting-led piece of work, requiring buy-in and commitment. It’s designed to ensure an organisation has an optimal BI solution that is scalable, flexible and cost-effective.
Said Duncan: “Discovery is strategy-led: Where are you currently at? What’s your current level of maturity? Where do you want to get to? We can then put together a sustainable plan to get from A to B.”
To answer such questions, Montage uses a scorecard to look at people, process and technology - areas critical for a successful BI programme. EA Networks really bought into the process. “They were aware they had lots of data but no information. They weren’t using good information to support decision-making.”
Jeremy remembered: “They came and did a Discovery. They looked under the hood. They interviewed a bunch of people. They asked all sorts of questions. They reported on that and gave us a synopsis of what they found.”
Said Gordon, CEO: “I guess that was the eye-opener.” That led to Montage’s recommended road map.
Following the Discovery, the first phase of work laid the foundations of their BI solution which scaled through other low scope, high impact projects. The projects enabled EAN to get to know Montage and how they worked and to see the skills they could bring. They knew about projects and how to prioritise them.
The programme supported EAN’s strategy to strengthen their information infrastructure where data could be easily accessed and used for planning and insights, shifting from disparate databases to more integrated systems. The development of a data warehouse where the company could use its flood of data was key.
EAN had many very skilled, intelligent people with vast experience. Those people could make gut decisions because they knew what had happened in the past and they knew intuitively what had to be done. Like many businesses, EAN had a looming succession issue. What happened when those people were no longer there? Processes had to be systemised and properly documented with analytics. That couldn’t happen without up-to-date information.
To compound this, at any one time, EA Networks could be working on 100 or more projects. The company was already concerned a couple of mission-critical projects might fall over. EA Networks talked to Montage and arranged a PMO Discovery to evaluate their Project Management maturity; the Discovery revealed that their concerns were justified. Could Montage help resolve the problems?
Montage prepared a consistent approach for planning and delivering projects – a Project Portfolio Management Framework. To support their number one project, which was at risk of failure, Montage provided project management skills. The highest priority project was significant, moving all the asset information out of an old database into a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution.
EA Networks also wanted to undertake a lot of transformation and change. They wanted a customer relationship management system, they wanted to change how they communicated with their customers. They wanted to use mobile technology to send text messages, for example, to affected customers when there was an outage.
They had projects they wanted to run but they were stretched for resources and unsure about priorities.
Montage quickly found they had some areas of improvement to make in their PMO capability, Gordon said. A number of system developments were occurring at once and were not as organised as they could have been. Some were more successful than others.
Two kinds of projects were occurring – business-as-usual projects such as building the network, and systems-change, one-off projects. Among the issues discovered was the lack of an over-arching view of how projects were impacting on each other and staff.
A Geospatial Information System and Customer Information Project were being worked on by different teams. Managers started putting time in people’s diaries to work on the Customer Information Project while at the same time the same people were being targeted by the GIS team to help with their projects.
They were also taking them away from their day jobs, which were busy enough. Montage showed them how to co-ordinate and prioritise.
Again, that was part of the evolution, Jeremy said.
Said Duncan: “We could help them prioritise what they had to do and make sure the right people were doing the right things at the right time. That would help them shape their strategy to being much more customer-centric, still keeping the lights on and well-connected, keeping everything humming nicely, but also adding this extra string to their bow.”
The EA Networks-Montage partnership for the past two years has been putting in place all the Business Intelligence and PMO pieces so that the company knows when opportunities in the disruptive new world come, they have the organisational capability to grasp them and know their back-room systems won’t let them down.
The Montage relationship is continuing. Said Duncan: “We’re still working with them, moving things forward. They’re a cool company.”
For Gordon and Jeremy, there’s satisfaction in knowing they’re now at the leading edge, ready to take that another step further. They didn’t just reach that conclusion themselves – auditors and outsiders who know their business told them.
Many benefits had already been realised, Jeremy said. They were largely in the plumbing. Completion of that meant other benefit realisations could begin. An analyst has been hired to leverage the investment in the data warehouse and Tableau – EA Networks chosen data analysis and visualisation software.
More and more information from the systems Montage have connected are being released. With controls and checks and balances all the way through, the company can finally have confidence in its data.
On the PMO side, they have a far better grasp on project progress.
“Overall, they’re better managed,” Gordon said. “We have some discipline around that. We have all these projects and it helps us make them all work together in an organised framework. I don’t know what would have happened if we had just carried on as we were. Outcomes wouldn’t have been met. We are still to realise the ultimate benefit, I think.”
There were indirect benefits, such as having a Montage Project Manager, who spends two or three days a week with EA Networks, as part of the team. “Having their skill-set on the Asset and GIS projects and almost being like a linking pin between the two has really helped facilitate better timing delivery of those projects, even though they’re still a work in progress,” said Jeremy. Duncan is also proud of what has been achieved. “They have transparency of their projects and know how they are performing; and are able to make decisions based on facts,” he said.
They know Montage staff are batting for them. They even bring them in for talks with suppliers or into other discussions, knowing it will either help them or help Montage staff understand the business which will lead to further efficiency later.
“We’re a reasonably big company in Ashburton but small in the New Zealand context and we do find getting particular skills to come and work for us quite challenging,” Jeremy said. “So you often have to have that third-party consultancy arrangement to get access to that skill resource. They certainly filled that gap for us.
“I like their approach which is to essentially build but then hand over and then come back in a support function. They don’t want to be constantly at the forefront. They do want to hand back and give it to your internal people to work and then support. And that model really resonates with me. That’s where the trust comes in.”
Did Montage deliver?
“They’re delivering,” said Jeremy. “There’s no past tense. There’s this constant evolution. They are constantly delivering, whether it be a real tangible or intangible benefit. We see benefit realisation on a monthly basis to some extent.”