As the Executive General Manager for Innovation and Technology at South Australia Power Networks, the state’s sole electricity distributor and energy industry leader for Australia’s most future-ready power grids, Chris Ford is at the forefront of the energy sector’s digitalisation and transformation efforts.
In the lead-up to the FST Government South Australia 2022 event, we sat down with the SA Power tech chief and featured FST event speaker to discuss how the organisation’s embrace of digital tools has unlocked new efficiencies and opportunities for its workforce, the unintended benefits realised from a sudden lockdown pivot, and why drones could serve as the future front-line of the energy sector’s workforce.
FST Government: South Australia has become a hub for innovation over the last decade, with digital transformation at the forefront of government and industry agendas. The last few years have also seen Covid upend, and in many cases accelerate, transformation strategies.
How is SA Power Networks evolving to meet this sudden change in customer needs and workforce demands ushered in by the pandemic?
Ford: Interestingly, we haven’t really had to change our digital transformation strategy. We were on quite an aggressive digital transformation program and, really, the pandemic hasn’t affected that.
From an organisational perspective, with many more people now working from home, we do, for instance, take into account when we plan out maintenance outages in residential areas. We have also improved our communication with customers to ensure they know what is happening and that we’re minimising the impact on them where possible.
From a workforce perspective, the pandemic has shown us that our workforce is very resilient and we’ve been able to maintain productivity – if not improve productivity – by people working from home and having a much more flexible working arrangement.
We, for example, even went live with our new billing system – and on time – with our delivery team working remotely.
FST Government: Coming out of the pandemic, how have those few changes you’ve had to make for your workforce (for instance, implementing new digital collaboration tools and technologies and customer experience innovations) re-shaped the way you’re operating now and into the future?
Ford: As an organisation, now that people have seen that they have the ability to work from home successfully, we will go to a much more flexible working model. However, it is still important that we do regular check-ins with our colleagues to ensure they have the opportunity to connect and collaborate in person. So, we’ll see a much more hybrid working arrangement where staff come to the office to collaborate and connect. But we also want to enable them to have dedicated focus time at home.
It has made people realise that it is possible to still communicate effectively across video, whereas there was some resistance to that prior to the pandemic.
We’ve had quite a graphically dispersed workforce, spread right across the state. It has been great having the capability of Microsoft Teams to meet and collaborate with people from Ceduna [around 800kms northwest of Adelaide] down to Bordertown, on the Victorian border, all without the need for extended travel.
FST Government: One of the biggest hurdles when actioning transformation strategies is overcoming employee hesitancy or even discomfort using new tools.
How has SA Power Networks ensured that its employees can willingly and productively make use of these new capabilities?
Ford: Something we really focus on in change management is giving people an understanding of why we’re making a particular change and the benefits that are in it for them; it’s about making sure they’re comfortable with the technology, with what the new processes will be and how the new technology will work with them. And it’s very much about making sure that the change management element is focused on the value to the employee.
Nevertheless, there are some interesting change management lessons that we also discovered. We had a Covid case in our office very early on in the pandemic. We’d, in fact, rolled out [Microsoft] Teams some time ago, noting the initial reluctance of some of our people to use it.
As soon as lockdowns hit, though, everyone was required overnight to go home and just log on. Once they did, it was a bit of a ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ moment.
It showed that, when there was a real need, you can really speed up change acceptance as people still wanted to communicate and work.
FST Government: How does SA Power Networks plan to continue this momentum of innovation and really unlock the full potential of these digital tools and capabilities?
Ford: We still have a digital transformation strategy and we’re continuing to deliver. We’ve had some large systems investments – we recently implemented a new SAP Billing system and we’re in the process of implementing a new SAP ERP (enterprise resource planning) system. And this is all being done in the cloud; we’re fundamentally moving from on-premise to cloud, and we’re already big adopters of Microsoft Office 365 and Azure.
Security is a very big focus for us too. To ensure our systems and data remain secure, we design in security from the start of all projects and employ things like multi-factor authentication early on, meaning that everyone needs to validate who they are before accessing our systems.
FST Government: You’ll be speaking at our upcoming FST Government South Australia conference, discussing digital transformation services and capabilities. What lessons and opportunities do you hope to discuss with peers in industry and government?
Ford: It’s always great at these events to listen and understand what others are doing and pick up the other initiatives that organisations are finding value in. I always find it really useful to see people adopt different ways of solving the same problem. It’s great to see what plans they’ve got and, hopefully, be able to share some of the things I’ve done as well!
FST Government: Coming from the energy industry, which crosses both public and private sectors, what do you see as the biggest challenge you face in meeting the unique demands of both industry and government?
Ford: One of the biggest challenges we have in the electricity distribution business of South Australia is the rapid uptake of distributed energy sources, such as solar and batteries. Not only are we seeing a digital transformation, but we’re seeing a complete transformation of the distributed energy network.
The speed of transition is far quicker than many expected and South Australia is one of the world leaders in the adoption of solar energy.
So, we’re in a very dynamic environment that we have to respond to. From an IT perspective, my role is to ensure that the organisation is ready, supported, and able to adopt new technologies and platforms to support the energy transition.
FST Government: The South Australian Government and energy industry are quite unique in the way that they embrace innovation and technology, as you’ve mentioned. For example, SA Power Networks is part of the partnership with the national 5G Industrial Incubation lab.
What are some emerging digital tools or technologies that you can see have the potential to transform the way that the energy industry operates?
Ford: All the usual suspects, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’re now embedding these into many of our systems to ensure we improve our decision-making and deliver better customer outcomes. We also do quite a bit with virtual reality and augmented reality to improve things like safety and training.
At the 5G lab, we’ve been looking at how we can improve the effectiveness of drone inspections using 5G to transfer high volumes of data.
But probably the most exciting innovation we’re experimenting with at the moment is a Boston Dynamics ‘dog’ called Spot.
Spot is a robot dog that we’re training to recognise Stobie (i.e. electricity) poles and take photos to perform inspection runs or go into more hazardous situations that humans wouldn’t be able to. It is certainly a favourite when we take it on visits to schools or shows.
FST Government: Looking more broadly now, what would you say defines a successful digital platform or initiative within a public sector context?
Ford: It really has to be something that has added value to either users of the system or to customers. Perhaps, more importantly, it’s something that has delivered on the expectations that were set at the start – something that has improved customer service or improved the efficiency of a process that enables things to be done more effectively and enables better data and decisions.
But, ultimately, the success of a program depends on its adoption. That is, the system must be embraced, or at least adopted, by users, which usually means it must be easy to use and deliver the value that it promised.
FST Government: You’ve mentioned that user experience is one of the big factors that you take into account when designing your platforms. What are some other key things to keep in mind?
Ford: User Experience (UX) or more importantly Human Centred Design is really important to us and is a methodology we try to adopt on all of our projects from the start.
When a system has been designed properly, from defining the core process flows through to the user interface, it will be far more successful than those that haven’t adopted this approach. As part of the design, we simplify the processes and minimise inputs, then ensure that the user interface is intuitive, minimising opportunity for human error and also reducing the need for training.
FST Government: What would you say are some digital initiatives that you’re most proud of or that have been most successful for SA Power Networks?
Ford: That’s interesting. And we in fact continually roll out a lot of new systems.
I think what I’m most proud of is our seamless transition to hybrid working.
My team predicted the need for Microsoft Teams and Office 365 and ensured that we were very early adopters of those platforms.
Probably six months before the pandemic came along, we’d rolled out the appropriate technologies so that, when there was a need to communicate and work from home or work from anywhere, we were able to connect our colleagues and enable them to continue working seamlessly despite many other organisations struggling.
The reputation of IT improved because we were able to provide support to people and enable them to work remotely.
FST Government: How do you see these initiatives translating to the public sector, specifically at a government level?
Ford: I think the main focus should be on strategy and planning, really understanding what outcomes you’re trying to achieve and making sure you’ve got the support for the strategy and ultimately the funding, plus also deliver value along the way.
The days of very long IT projects that take two or three years before they deliver anything are gone.
The world is changing so rapidly that we must ensure that we can be adaptive and agile and deliver value as we go.
FST Government: Would an example of this type of evolving project be the Power of Possibility future energy campaign, launched last year in a bid to further the integration of renewable and sustainable energy sources into the power grid?
Ford: Yes, in a way. We’re looking at how we can ensure that the future of the network is able to support the changing environment and distribute renewable energy. SA is world-leading in being connected to the grid and in customers getting value from that.
FST Government: In terms of your digitalisation plan, what does that future look like for SA Power networks and how will it ultimately change how you operate?
Ford: Our Digital and Data Strategy strap line is Building the next generation digital utility. So it’s my job to deliver the right technology and platforms to ensure the organisation continues to evolve and adapt to the rapidly changing energy industry. It is ultimately about enabling the distributed energy that’s connected to our network to be used in a way that maximises value for the customer.
It’s a very exciting time to be in IT, and if you couple that with the rapidly changing electricity industry, there couldn’t be a more exciting time to be at SA Power Networks! We have a very interesting and challenging future ahead of us. ◼
Chris Ford will be a featured panellist at the upcoming FST Government South Australia 2022 conference, exploring digital transformation, services, capabilities and agility.