Realizing digital transformation – Lessons learned from utility operators

image credit: IQGeo
Steve Tongish's picture
Chief Marketing Officer IQGeo

Steve’s career has included international marketing, business development and product management with enterprise engineering software. Having worked for small VC funded start-ups to large...

  • Member since 2020
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  • Oct 2, 2020

This item is part of the Advances in Utility Digitalization - Fall 2020 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

The IQGeo team has had a busy year working with utility and telecoms customers to deploy our software solutions to support the digital transformation of their operational networks. As software vendors we often think that we have all the answers, but one thing that impressed me this year is just how much our organization has learned from our customers.

It’s true that each utility operator has a different set of network, technology and business challenges and they often start their digital transformation journeys in very different places, but it’s also true that we are learning common lessons. Operators need an accurate and current geospatial view of their network assets to radically improve construction, maintenance, inspection, and survey processes. To achieve ambitious objectives, we’ve seen how the most successful travelers are using the same transformation strategies that can be summarized as Digitize, Integrate, and Empower.

1 - Digitize

Eliminate paper-based and cartography-centric processes

All too often utility network operators are still relying on paper maps, work orders and as-built details captured in notebooks to execute mission critical and safety dependent processes. We can even include spreadsheets and laptops with a plethora of applications in this category of cartography-centric processes.

This disjointed approach is already failing to deliver, and with increasingly complex distributed grid infrastructure, IIoT sensors and new reality capture technology, a traditional approach will collapse under its own weight. The goal is to digitize these processes using a flexible solution that meets the needs of individual stakeholders. For example, the field teams need a very different approach than the engineers in the office while still sharing the same critical operational information.

Replacing error prone manual processes and disconnected applications is a foundation element for digital transformation.

The benefits of digitization

  • Reduce operating costs
  • Improve resource efficiency
  • Mitigate operational risks

2 - Integrate

Integrate mission critical applications and data streams into a single network view

Over time network operators have accumulated a wide range of applications and data sources, each addressing a specific process or problem. The result is inefficient swivel chair system management as employees constantly switch between applications to collect different pieces of information that is often confusing at best and contradictory at worst.

There is a point at which this smorgasbord of applications begins to compromise operational efficiency, the very thing these applications were intended to prevent. Not to mention the increasing financial and support burden (TCO) that comes with maintaining many applications. Consolidating applications and integrating them into a shared geospatial platform provides utility operators with a powerful view that collates and validates information that can be reliably and promptly acted upon.

To achieve the integration and consolidation of applications you need a platform that has an open architecture that can be quickly adapted using standard tools in an open source environment. Gone are the days of centrally controlled proprietary systems that only the vendor or their selected partners can customize. When transforming your digital infrastructure, agility and control are essential.

The benefits of integration

  • Accelerate decision making
  • Reduce IT total cost of ownership
  • Create a single source of network truth


3 - Empower

Democratize technology by giving field crews a modern mobile solution

The unsung heroes of digital transformation are the crews in the field building new networks, maintaining assets to keep them safe, and inspecting networks to meet regulatory obligations. All too often field teams are an afterthought in the process and software vendors simply adapt their workstation-based solutions for field operations with very poor results and low adoption that ultimately leads to unhappy customers.

Given the physical reality of field operations, it’s not surprising that technology providers have glossed over the needs of the field as they are the most difficult stakeholders to satisfy. However, they hold the key to network asset data quality. If you can provide a mobile solution that empowers field crews to quickly, easily and accurately capture field asset information from as-builts to inspections, you’ve cracked one of the most difficult nuts.

Empowering the field is not about pasting a mobile solution onto the side of your big, centralized GIS, but flipping the entire model on its head. A modern geospatial platform architecture must be distributed and not centralized. In other words, it must be “mobile-first”, recognizing how strategic it is to create a view of your network from the field to the office, not the other way around. It is only with this perspective that meaningful and sustained digital transformation can be realized.

The benefits of empowerment

  • Improve network data quality
  • Enhance collaboration and reduced backlogs
  • Create happier, loyal customers

One bite at a time

While it’s easy to say Digitize, Integrate and Empower, how are successful utilities making this happen? The answer lies in the old joke about the best way to eat an elephant. The punch line is “one bite at a time”. Start small and evolve. Beware of anyone hawking a big bang approach to digital transformation. The enterprise wide deployment of a shiny new database won’t buy you digital transformation, it’s an evolutionary process that builds momentum over time with incremental success.

Our most successful customers have identified those focused areas where the greatest improvements can be most quickly realized and finding these areas is normally straight forward. You only need to ask your team which processes are the most difficult, problematic, or inherently risk prone. You will likely have no shortage of areas to consider as people share their concerns and frustrations.

They typically start with a single, well defined use case with clear business benefits and go from there. Not only does this approach help to justify any investment with senior management, it vests your team in the process and acts to ensure project success which greases the transformation wheels for future evolution.

To infinity and beyond

Today’s utility operators face many challenges. We have amazing new technology combined with greater regulatory oversight and increasingly severe environmental conditions. Old centralized, legacy systems are already creaking at the seams, making digital transformation fundamental to long-term success. With an approach that focuses on digitizing processes, integrating applications, and empowering the field, transformation can be accomplished using a transparent step by step methodology. 

The right approach together with a modern, mobile-first geospatial platform builds a launch pad for the future that will take your digital transformation journey, to quote Buzz Lightyear, “to infinity and beyond!”.

Andrei Belyi's picture
Andrei Belyi on Sep 29, 2020

Very good contribution! Going digital makes us greener too - my own post about in few days. Happy to exchange further ideas 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 29, 2020

Old centralized, legacy systems are already creaking at the seams, making digital transformation fundamental to long-term success. 

Also shows where the aging/cracking infrastructure is an opportunity. They will need to be replaced/rebuilt anyway-- those costs are happening-- so you might as well spend a bit more to make them as advanced and digital as possible!

Steve Tongish's picture
Thank Steve for the Post!
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