The following is a Viewpoint by Michael O'Donnell, SAP North America's head of utilities.
Historically, regulated industries have been slow to embrace disruptive technologies relative to their peers. For decades, their monopoly status removed competitive pressures to innovate and retain their customer base. But my, how times have changed. With non-traditional providers and solutions emerging every day, the traditional utility as we know it must transform to keep (and compete for) market share.
For example, have you taken the time to consider Walmart, Amazon and Ikea a threat to your stability? If you answer 'no', I suggest you think again. When the brand new IKEA moves into town, know that they aren't simply showing up with a warehouse full of cost-effective furniture, but a microgrid to go alongside it. And, retailers aren't the only industry beginning to leverage distributed energy options such as solar to defray their energy costs.
This reality is forcing utilities to do more than "just keep the lights on" to meet the demands of their business and satisfy customers. The evolution of how organizations/people get their energy and a market push toward energy decentralization means that utilities are now accountable for addressing rapidly-shifting customer needs and expectations like never before.
But while utilities may have lagged other sectors in digital transformation, they are rapidly catching up, embracing next-gen technology at scale to stay ahead in a shifting market. With over 18 years working within the industry, I've come to find the following three strategies as shared among winning utilities organizations:
1. A culture defined by digital-first (ask the right questions)
As outlined above, utilities face a unique challenge in the marketplace today. They need to invest in revitalizing aging infrastructure and power grids, yet face flat or declining retail sales due to the ongoing push for energy efficiency. This, combined with the ever-present threat of non-traditional competitors pushing into the energy space has the industry scrambling. This emphasizes the need for a culture that embraces new technologies that can help realize cost savings or reinvent processes today.
One way to help adjust your organization's culture is to attract and retain talent that brings next-gen thinking to the forefront. Leading utility companies are giving these restructured teams more freedom to test new solutions, and they are encouraging the application of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and IoT connection in the field. Plus, they are focusing on reskilling their existing labor force, ensuring everyone is engaged and has an enhanced role in the transforming digital landscape, top-down and across the organization. Not only does this help make the best use of existing talent, but it engages the up-and-coming employees who will lead their organizations to embrace a successful "Utilities 2.0" framework in the years ahead.
To have the best chance of success in moving to a digital-first culture, you will need to make sure you are asking the right questions as you make key decisions. Do we have the right people? Are we organizationally set up for success? Do we have the capacity to change quickly if needed? Like all technology considerations, each choice will have an impact on your entire landscape and your ability to sustain the enterprise for the long term.
2. Acceptance of short-term cost, long-term gain (decide who you want to be)
The utilities industry has historically pioneered several customer-first initiatives that reduced consumer energy consumption — such as LEDs and energy efficient appliances — but this came with some long-term implications. Under traditional business models, these innovations ultimately challenged utilities in regards to maintaining profitability. However, as a result of making these investments, the utility aligned more closely to the preferences of customers, leading to greater customer satisfaction and positive public sentiment.
Similarly, digital technology is no longer a nice-to-have, but a critical investment to both modernize the back end, and improve customer-facing services. While these investments may not immediately translate to the bottom line, they will keep utilities at the center of the customer relationship.
Utilities have a lot of choices to make on where they want to focus. Do you focus on the evolution of assets? The changing customer engagement model? New market opportunities? All of the above?
San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) faced these very considerations when it identified a disaster relief market need for quick-service electric distribution pole repair. It was an exhaustive process — 400 hours of field research discovery, design thinking workshops and field worker shadowing — but resulted in an IoT-driven mobile asset inspection application capable of helping field workers identify repair locations and the safest, most efficient route for traveling to affected sites. For companies like PG&E, deciding who you want to be as a company and aligning the proper (many times, capital) investments will be key to winning in the long term.
3. Adopting emerging solutions (pick the right platforms)
Utilities aren't the first place you'd think of as breeding grounds for emerging technology, but several leaders are helping to change this narrative. I read hundreds of headlines showcasing examples of the innovation utility companies are driving to keep up with the Elon Musks of the world. With a comprehensive "Utilities 2.0" model, organizations are turning towards innovation — implementing next gen technology such as IoT, machine learning, AI and blockchain into their services to unlock new efficiencies and opportunities for savings.
Utilities are an asset-intensive industry, which creates opportunity for edge computing devices to be implemented in a way that helps companies anticipate and solve diagnostic issues remotely without the need for manual intervention. For example, Chino Hill's Smart Utility Systems has capitalized on the surge in the smart home product market, leveraging IoT embedded in smart thermostats to establish a two-way communication channel with customers to alert them of their water and energy use. In a water-starved state like California, projects like this are going to go a long way in not only reducing customer billing, but state water usage.
We are seeing rapid growth in the electric vehicle market year-over-year, and find the adoption of EVs present an incredible opportunity for utilities to experiment. For example, does blockchain represent the best method for handling charging station transactions? Can the utility play a role in the transmission of extra energy from the car, to the home? This is but one small example of what we can come to expect in the next decade, but it's this type of experimentation and analysis that will differentiate the modern utility.
Picking the right platforms and solutions that enable your long-term strategy in the most sustainable way will be key. Anytime you have emerging technologies, there will be a lot of new market entrants that either get acquired or go out of business over time. The evaluation of what you are trying to accomplish with a solution, and how it fits into the rest of your landscape, is critical.
By taking steps to enhance your organization's appetite for disruption and making long-term investments in an integration-focused technology strategy, utility companies are once again establishing their competitive footing to contend for consumer loyalty — a process that will prime them for success today and in years to come.