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Disruption Was The Theme At The SAP For Utilities Conference This Year

The main topic of conversation at the SAP For Utilities Conference in Huntington Beach, California was disruption. The disruption theme spanned the spectrum, from the industry’s reinvention to the absence of millennial workers in the industry to the disruption caused due to the recent Texas hurricane. Regarding the last-mentioned point, Lloyd Adams, National Vice President, SAP for Utilities, said the use of technology within the context of a hurricane was about using data for storm-preparedness. Officials from Texas’ utility industry seem to have done their home work because they were in attendance at the conference.

In an conversation with me, Adams said companies attending the conference planned to combine individual strategies and use them as a “forcing function” to implement changes in their internal processes. The conference, which was first held ten years ago, is witness to the changes occurring in the energy industry. Adams outlined three changes that he has observed during ten years of the conference.

First, the transition from “ratepayer” to “customer” has accompanied a change in technology's applications for energy utilities. “It is no longer a matter of billing or customer information for utilities, per se,” explains Adams. “Instead it is about addressing customers through a multitude of channels in the way that they want.” In terms of implementation, this can take on various forms. For example, utilities connect with customers through social media channels and provide them with an assortment of individualized information regarding their electric use.

Second, there is a convergence between operational technology and information technology. This has produced an “explosion of data”, in Adams words. For SAP, which is more well-known for its backend Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) functions, reinventing itself to help utilities make use of this data. “Data can be choreographed appropriately or harnessed  to move beyond preventative maintenance to make real-time  predictions,” said Adams.

Finally, Adams highlighted an increased trend of utilities moving towards the cloud. “It took some time for utilities to come to grips with cloud computing,” said Adams. But there are signs that the pace is picking up. According to a 2016 survey conducted by Oracle, another company that provides technology services to the utilities sector, 45% of 100 utility executives surveyed were using cloud computing in some form or another in their companies.

Adams said SAP has developed solutions to help utilities become “end-to-end continuum digital utilities.” At the centerpiece of this strategy is S/4 HANA, the company’s next-gen ERP system that uses its in-memory database system to speeds up cloud processing. According to him, the database has “changed the game in terms of speed, processing power, and everything else we bring to bear from the customer perspective. For example, Itron, a technology and services company for the energy and water industries, is using S/4 HANA to enable real-time collection of metered data.  

A dash of operational technology into the energy industry also comes with a side benefit; it might help lure millennials into an industry that is, otherwise, facing an employment crisis of sorts. Adams cited a study by Accenture, from a couple of years ago, that found only 2 percent of millennials interested in a career in the energy industry. “For those of us in the industry, it’s astounding,” he said, adding that a disruption of the industry presented a “great opportunity for individuals who want to build their careers in an incredibly dynamic industry.”

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