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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Washington DC Capitol building

It was only a matter of time before the above headline made an appearance in Utility Analytics Weekly. Since the realization of the ARRA Smart Grid funding and related activity, Washington, DC has become a hub of U.S. utility activity relating to and beyond the smart grid.

This week’s visit to our nation’s capitol was to attend the SAS Global Forum Executive Conference. I wanted to share a few highlights from this week’s gathering at the beautiful National Harbor Gaylord Hotel.

The conference kicked off with an opening keynote from Colin Powell who shared some of his experiences and insights on leadership. One of his comments really leaped out at me as being particularly pertinent in today’s business environment that seems to be continually moving towards being fraught with overly controlled activity and messaging. General Powell noted the importance of “…having confidence as a leader to empower your leaders.” Truer words have never been spoken, and the General backed this up with a great story of how he had two very junior staffers brief the President during his time as Secretary of State.  It’s hard to imagine a more high-pressure example of delegation, yet the importance of this was not lost on the audience.

In the same opening session we also heard from SAS CEO and Founder Dr. Jim Goodnight and Chief Marketing Officer Jim Davis. Dr. Goodnight shared some stories from the early days of SAS as they transitioned from being a graduate project at North Carolina State to one of the world’s most respected corporations. He shared how they realized that they might be on to something when 350 people showed up at their first user conference in 1976.

Jim Davis shared “Eight Metrics That Matter” for organizations that are delving into the world of Big Data and analytics. While I can’t do justice to these metrics in this column, it is worth noting what they are: ROI, Governance, Productivity, Timeliness, Accuracy, Effectiveness, Empowerment, and Maturity. On that last metric, Maturity, Jim was very quick to point out that this is not just a matter of technology, but it is a function of people, process, culture (“embrace change!”), data, and technology. In what we have observed over the last three years at the Institute we would agree that this is something that we see as being particularly true. Successful analytics implications are as much about the “soft stuff” (people, process, and culture) as it is about the “hard stuff” (data and technology).

One additional comment from Jim Davis really stands out in my notes. Jim challenged the audience with this question: “Is data a by-product of my operations or am I using this data to drive my business into the future?” This rings true here at the Institute where we see part of our mission being facilitating the utility industry’s movement from looking at the answers to the “what happened?” questions, to applying the lessons learned from “what happened?” predictively.

The conference also featured a number of breakout and demo sessions. I was able to sit in on a session reporting on results from a Harvard Business Review survey on Customer Experience. While the session was overflowing and bordering on overwhelming with charts and graphs reporting on survey results, it was interesting to note that the organizations that rated themselves as having a higher level of customer engagement rated online customer interaction much higher than those that viewed themselves as not being as highly engaged with their customers. Online chat, online reviews, mobile interaction, and social media were at the top of the customer engagement sources among the higher customer engagement organizations.

I was also able to attend a demo of the SAS Energy Forecasting solution. This was a great example of how quickly the tools available for today’s analytics professionals have evolved. Tim Fairchild, SAS’ Utility Industry Director, commented on how the SAS utilities team sees the utility analytics community embracing some of these new tools: “No other industry offers more potential for the application of advanced analytics than Utilities. Forecasting is an area where even small improvements in accuracy can have a significant financial impact for a utility. It’s a challenging and exciting time to be a forecaster!”

One of the neat things about working at the Institute is that we get to have occasional glimpses into the leading-edge technologies that are driving industry transformation, but even more valuable are the opportunities to engage with utility analytics thought leaders. This week’s trip to Washington DC was one such occasion.

Finally, a big “Thanks” to the event’s hosts at SAS. They put on a top-notch event that provided plenty of opportunities to learn more about Big Data and analytics, and to think about the broader business issues that are impacting how industries, including but not limited to utilities, are transforming their businesses via the power of data and analytics.

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