Johnny Johnston, SVP Business Enablement, National Grid
1. As a person who has assumed various roles, all the way from trainee to SVP, at National Grid, how have you seen on-field technology evolve?
It was about 20 years ago, about the time I joined National Grid, that electronic devices began replacing paper recording systems in field environments. These devices recorded data that were being manually recorded during those days. Although the accuracy of the captured data improved, these electronic devices tended to be power-consuming, complex to use, and expensive. These electronic devices evolved into scheduling systems that helped organizations automate processes. I remember being fascinated by my first auto-scheduling system that we setup when I ran our dispatch teams in the UK, about ten years ago. It immensely improved the visibility into our resources and their utilization, allowing the company to function much more effectively. The data generated from these systems enabled us to better understand our business and improve our customer service.
However, today’s scenario is altogether different. With the availability of affordable, compact, powerful, and user-friendly consumer devices, we are able to track all of our work and optimize our resources in real time. This technology combined with modern architecture, provides us the opportunity to integrate systems and create a seamless experience from the front line employee, to a call center agent, to our customer. Employees can easily video chat with their supervisor and also access useful information through simple applications, making it easier and safer to complete their work. Perhaps even more importantly our customers will experience an intuitive, transparent and user-friendly process through their channel of choice.
Standardized APIs are allowing information to be shared more easily, further opening up the world of analytics. Analytics allows organizations to understand a lot about their business and their customers. I’m extremely excited about the new possibilities that technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning will present to us in the near future.
2. What according to you are the major challenges technology leaders across the industries are facing in this era of Internet and digitalization?
Migrating from legacy systems to modern ones is a major hurdle for all industries. The complexity arises from the challenges each facet of this process poses. Companies like National Grid that have grown over many years through various mergers and acquisitions, function on a large number of systems, each built on different system architectures with point-to-point integration.
It is imperative for companies to invest in technology that can sustain for an extended period of time
When these companies try to modernize one part of the system, they are shackled by the interconnectedness of all these legacy systems. It is therefore challenging to modernize just one area, leaving the monumental task for a company to execute large-scale migration, which demands significant expenditure and time to deliver. With new technologies emerging every day, it is imperative for companies to invest in a technology that can sustain for an extended period of time. We work with a forward-looking architectural approach and strive to develop standard APIs that will make our systems flexible enough to handle technological changes of the future.
National Grid handled these challenges by developing a strategic roadmap to move as many systems as possible to a modern architecture in a synchronized approach, keeping a cloud-first strategy in mind. This process is challenging to execute but in the long run will be significantly quicker and more cost effective than a serial approach. Another aspect that is interlinked with legacy systems is data. To enable enhanced technical capabilities like auto scheduling or Machine Learning data quality is key. Failure to ensure that the quality of legacy data meets the requirements of your new systems can lead to broken functionality or even false outputs. Although historically, National Grid has a strong record of managing data quality, we have used a data quality index for legacy data to identify where enhancements are required to reduce potential risks during migration.
It is also necessary to bridge the gap between the software developers and the end users. Teams of developers have many times thought they had developed brilliant applications that turned out to be impractical when used by frontline employees. The scaled agile approach we have developed at National Grid, has brought developers and business users together in a much closer way than in the past, allowing for a much earlier demonstration of capabilities and a significantly shorter feedback cycle. This results in a better solution being delivered for the business and our customers.
3. With the growing need for organizations to be adaptable to future technological disruptions, what would be your advice to fellow technology leaders regarding process development for their companies?
Haste is one mistake that project leaders cannot afford to make. In this highly competitive environment, it is not always about being the quickest to install the latest devices in the field. Organizations need to consider multiple factors before implementing a new project. During our recent modernization project, we spent a considerable amount of time understanding the web of legacy systems in place and looking for ways in which we could simplify and rationalize to a standardized solution. This process is difficult and, takes a bit longer at the start. It requires tough questions to be answered, but the payoff is undeniable. Through pilot runs and a methodical approach to a standard solution, we managed to reduce our process steps by up to 60 percent in some cases. This has allowed us to strategically design a much simpler solution with less than half the original number of applications.
Getting the right team together sounds obvious, but to make investments that will provide business value for the long term, you need business and IT resources to work hand in hand. If you haven’t got significant numbers of business and change resources involved in your program you are likely to be simply completing a pure technology implementation and from my experience, these rarely deliver the anticipated future business value and can sometimes even make things worse. We have found having a healthy balance of experienced employees and new professionals from a range of backgrounds is helping us develop an excellent solution while also building capability for the future.
Leaders should also keep in mind that installation of new projects must not hinder the day-to-day operations of the organization. If the end users, be it employees or customers, are unable to fully utilize the implemented solution, the benefits can never be fully harnessed. It is essential to engage the end user through the process and develop a user-friendly solution that is focused on enabling the users to realize the desired benefits.