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Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.

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SIMPLE SCALES

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Andrii Yalanskyi | Dreamstime

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Years ago, I worked at a power company for one of the most interesting people I can remember. Bob was brilliant, articulate, and paranoid. He didn’t trust anyone. He believed that all the folks working for him were goofing off all the time. He even used to sneak around the city in the middle of the night to try to catch night-shift crews in the act of not working. Bob had a number of T&D operating groups working for him. I ran one of those groups. He was also in charge of the Technical Services Department, an administrative group that performed a variety of functions such as checking police detail invoices, preparing dispatcher reports, and filing circuit maps. Bob hated the Technical Services Department. He couldn’t understand why this group even existed.

One day, Bob had had enough. He decided to simply blow up the department. All of the managers Bob supervised—myself included—warned him that the move was risky. We thought if the group simply failed to exist, something bad was sure to happen. Some critical report or regulation filing would be missing. We could get into trouble. Surely this department was doing valuable work for the company. He didn’t care. He said, we will find out soon enough whether we need this department. Then, and only then, would he reinstate the group. Bob pulled the trigger. He gave the manager an early retirement package, fired a couple of supervisors, and reassigned all the clerical staff to open positions elsewhere in the organization.

A funny thing happened: Nothing.

There were no complaints of people not getting reports, no increased fees, no fines. Bob was right. The department did not add any business value to the company. The department simply added complexity to the operations. Some of the work was a carryover from the time before computers and GIS. Long ago some unknown, unnamed person, created certain functions needed at the time. That legacy continued for years, until no one actually knew why the tasks were being performed.

While I would never recommend that we simply blow up functioning departments, I always think back to Bob whenever I run into situations that seem overly complex. I wonder what Bob would have done if he were in charge. Once in a while an RFP for a GIS project will come across my desk with the requirements that are exceedingly complex. Often the only way to meet the requirements is to customize the software. Overly customized software built on top of commercial software is a nightmare to maintain, troubleshoot, and upgrade. CIOs will demand that all software be commercial off the shelf solutions. Yet many times the complex requirements make that impossible. As good, obedient vendors and consultants, we work hard to meet the customer’s requirements. Yet we all know that the risk of problems, performance issues, and downtimes increase with every line of custom code. But unlike Bob, we don’t recommend that the customer blow up the requirements and get simple.

Scott Morehouse, the pioneer behind Esri’s ArcGIS often states, “Simple scales, complex fails.” Easy to remember. Hard to do.

While there are many valid reasons to add functionality to the GIS or any automation system, we have learned lessons from IT leaders including the late Steve Jobs of Apple:: Keeping things simple and focused is great for the customer. Simplicity drives productivity, lowers training costs, reduces costly mistakes, and improves morale.

We know that GIS projects in utilities have had some rocky histories. But, we do not hear about problems with the projects that are simple, have a strong understanding of the mission of the GIS, and avoid customization or added complexity. The projects that do have problems generally involve unusual work flows or many attributes, or the project is designed to replicate old printed maps and includes a lot of customizations. The biggest challenge utilities face with GIS is not the addition of more and more complex functionality. The challenge is to get the data right, up to date, and complete. I rarely run into a utility GIS project that contains complete facilities data that includes the underground structures.

Adding all kinds of complexity takes away attention from data quality and erodes the core mission of the utility GIS: to provide easy-to-understand access to good data, to support decision making with intuitive analytics, and to provide situational awareness. Let the ADMS (Advanced Distribution Management Systems) and AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) do what they do best. Let the GIS do what it does best.

There is nothing more intuitive than a map. Take a look at some of the simple mobile apps like Esri’s collector. Simple viewing of data from your GIS in the field. Simple collection. Simple set up. Plus, it looks and feels like every other app people use on their smart phones, every day. 

The vendor and consultant GIS community can help utilities shape GIS projects to be simple and elegant instead of just building something to meet requirements that may not add value to the business. We can help the customer blow up complexity and insist upon simplicity. Bob would be proud.

For more information on ArcGIS for utilities click Esri Electric and Gas Utilities

Bill Meehan's picture

Thank Bill for the Post!

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Esri
Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.

Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on April 23, 2019

The anectdote here really paints a picture, appreciate you sharing

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on April 26, 2019

Thanks, Matt for your comment.  Hope all is well.

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