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Digital Transformation Begins at the Core: Four Foundational Technology Themes

By Joe Tellez, CTO, Tacoma Public Utilities

Joe Tellez, CTO, Tacoma Public Utilities

Digital transformation is permeating just about every industry with varying degrees of urgency and understanding regarding what being “digital” really means. It is virtually impossible to define what being digital means without a mention of disruptive technologies and their associated impacts to long-lived business models. Utilities, perhaps more than other industries, are dealing with disruptive technologies on all sides of the business model and are coming to the realization that to be digital means to be a data-driven organization. The lines between business and technology are increasingly blurred given technology commoditization and consumerization, and it is important for technology planners to prepare the organization by focusing on key technology themes as foundations of a digital business. This stair-stepped approach focuses on core foundational technology capabilities and services in utility IT organizations while building upon the disciplines of each theme.

“The lines between business and technology are increasingly blurred given technology commoditization and consumerization”   

Modernize and Optimize Infrastructure Foundation

Many utility technology organizations have been addressing modernization of computing and communications infrastructure partially due to deferred capital investment in these areas. As technology spending resumes, it is vital to target core infrastructure technology for refresh and migration to highly optimized platforms that offer greater capability in terms of robustness, availability, and operational efficiency. This not only means bringing infrastructure assets into vendor support compliance where this may have fallen behind but also recognizing the need to reduce overall support costs through standardization. Opportunities to consolidate competing or duplicate platforms and retiring technology that has limited future value should be also considered. A key activity is to apply strategic planning concepts through the use of maturity assessments, best practice assessments, gap analysis, and developing tactical roadmaps. Infrastructure as a service (IaaS), development and operations (DevOps) support models, and available cloud hosting options are viable roadmap elements in this foundational theme.

Enhance Cybersecurity Posture through IT/OT Convergence

Modern industrial control systems are now adopting modern information technology platforms and are relying on standard security protocols, common application services, and data exchange mechanisms. Control systems are a class of utility operational technology (OT) that historically have been outside the support scope of traditional back office IT organizations and were considered self-contained, special purposed systems utilized by engineering staff. However, smart utility technology is driving the need for integrated control systems with utility business applications in order to increase situational awareness by presenting the utility an end-to-end view from production to customer delivery. Integrating the two classes of systems brings forth challenges in governance, support models, and engineering for reliability in shared infrastructure. However, opportunities to increase the organization’s cybersecurity capabilities are presented with this convergence given the impact on security compliance and policy enforcement is generally more onerous on OT than IT systems given their criticality and resiliency requirements. Convergence requires a cybersecurity posture based on capabilities in incident detection, isolation, and recovery rather than generally relying on preventive measures.

Smart Utility Integration with Operational Analytics

Utilities, especially those that provide multiple services, strive to achieve a common customer experience which is often difficult to accomplish where technology solutions are highly differentiated across organizational divisions. The ability to share operational information across multiple systems and organizational boundaries enables utilities to unlock the value of information assets, provide greater insight into customer behavior, optimize operations, and reduce redundancy in the technology portfolio. Smart utility integration leverages common solutions and shared infrastructure where synergies can be realized. The ability to combine IT and OT data with advanced operational analytics platforms is essential to a utility seeking to optimize work and asset management functions, meet revenue protection goals, and tailor products and services to match customer needs. Maturity in systems integration and event detection capabilities through the adoption of standard integration middleware is now considered foundational of a smart utility that can produce a common operational picture from both customer and internal viewpoints.

Operational Excellence through Service Management

As a utility undertakes a digital transformation and progresses through the three themes described above, having a strong technology management framework within the IT/OT support organizations not only helps balance resources split between delivery and support roles, but helps to ensure the availability, resiliency, and performance requirements of highly integrated systems are met. IT management disciplines in change and configuration management, incident and problem management, and other best practices are now extended to OT systems where such controls may be new to these environments. Maturing practices in vendor and technology asset management help build additional capabilities in the support model as the overall solution landscape extends deeper into the cloud and external service providers. Increasing situational awareness through the integration of device data is now a major consideration of adopting cloud-based solutions in addition to the operational efficiency benefits such solutions provide.

Digital transformation in our industry is being driven by the increasing demands of customers and advances in disruptive energy technology. Although the pace of transformation varies among utilities by the overall impact of external drivers and varying capabilities within utility IT/OT delivery and support functions. The approach presented here must be accompanied with the organizational change, role definitions, process elements, and requisite education and training required to fully realize the transformational potential of digital. These should be considered critical success factors which also includes the importance of data-driven process blueprinting that without, makes it very difficult for the utility to fully extract the collective value of data held in traditional organizational silos. It is also important to recognize that rapidly evolving technology will have an impact in legacy work practices that will need to be modified in order to ensure the resource model is conducive to the desired outcomes.

Applying concepts introduced in these four technology themes, along with consideration to the success factors, not only helps prepare utility technology support organizations for the demands of the digital utility but also helps position these organizations as enablers of digital business objectives.

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