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Enhanced grid benefits from IT/OT integration

Managing Director Stephanie Jamison on the value of IT/OT integration for distribution utilities.
Stephanie Jamison
Managing Director
Accenture Smart Grid Services

What are the key concerns surrounding IT/OT integration for utilities?
Bringing the worlds of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) together often results in clashes between functions that have historically developed with different approaches and interests. To stop these differences putting a brake on integration, it’s important to understand both sides, find common ground and bring them together. That’s particularly important to start realizing the benefits that integration offers and that, in turn, can help overcome the persistent uncertainties in some areas about the real value of IT/OT integration.

How can you maximize grid operator benefits from IT/OT integration?
The benefits of IT/OT integration really depend on the local geographical and market context, so before even thinking about implementation it’s critical to identify and articulate a clear and locally relevant business case. To do that, it’s helpful to start looking at the likely risks and assessing these against the projected benefits. One of those risks is clearly from cyber security.

It may be helpful, for example, to collect control system data discretely rather than via a direct connection to the ERP system, and then take the next step to connect it with relevant enterprise data or systems. The key is to take an iterative approach by demonstrating benefits over time to gain momentum. One common first step toward IT/OT integration is to deploy simple IT-enabled asset health monitoring.

What role does company culture play in IT/OT integration?
Bringing IT and OT together means integrating much more than technology. Operations and IT have traditionally held very different attitudes toward risk, and willingness to experiment and innovate. Addressing these human and cultural differences is essential—integration of the overall organization will be a key factor in successfully integrating data and technologies.

It’s also important to pay attention to—and plan for—the retention and transfer of knowledge, particularly in the case of the operational environment, where much of the workforce may be approaching retirement. However, smart use of technology can help with knowledge transfer and support the workforce evolution towards becoming IT-enabled across the business.

How should utilities integrate the different IT and OT systems?
The ability to share common data is key, so integration of databases—and especially data interfaces—is fundamental. It’s even more the case if the aspiration is to have a real-time system. And while there are international standards for data models today, such as CIM (Common Information Model), in practice their implementation is likely to prove slow and challenging. Effective workforce training and education will therefore be extremely important when implementing a common data model.

How can a utility make the best use of data collected from the OT systems?
Grid operations will create a huge—even overwhelming—amount of data. But it only becomes valuable when analytics are brought into the picture. To get started with analytics, start small and focused, demonstrate value to the C-suite and build from there. It’s crucial to remember that analytics is not an end in itself. It’s the ability to solve business problems with data that will convince any sceptics of its value and secure their buy-in.

Which operational data should a utility company choose for analytics?
Many companies today do not have highly sophisticated data science capabilities in place. Nor are they used to systematically collecting operational data. If that’s the case, rather than making the generation of data the first priority, it makes more sense to look at what is already available in historical data. Using analytics to look for correlations and combining existing data sets in different ways can prove a source of valuable new insights that will help build the business case for developing analytics capabilities further.

How can utilities find the skilled workforce they need to cope with data analysis in the future?
There’s no question that finding, hiring and retaining analytics talent is difficult for all businesses. According to our Digitally Enabled Grid research, only one-quarter of utilities are very well positioned to compete for analytics skills in the market. And the requirements related to OT data make finding talent even more challenging. But by using a more flexible approach, for example, by bringing together people that possess OT data knowledge with data scientists and econometricians, utilities can engineer the cross-pollination of skills and knowledge that will help secure value from OT data analytics.

Make or buy—how can utilities select between vendor versus in-house solutions for IT/OT integration?
A number of large vendors are building positions for themselves in the utilities IT/OT integration space. While some utilities continue to rely on customized, in-house technology, others are now investing in centralized systems and are building specific analytics solutions on top of generic platforms. But whatever approach is taken, it’s essential to make sure that data is integrated, with no siloes created as a result of new systems, and all the opportunities for quick wins provided by new solutions are captured.

Stephanie Jamison is managing director of Accenture Smart Grid Services within the Utilities industry group and is based in London, United Kingdom. She has deep knowledge and expertise smart grid and utilities. Stephanie’s focus is on helping clients with growth strategies and business transformation programs. She has worked with utilities on large-scale business transformation, smart grid strategies and rollouts and merger integration projects across the retail, transmission and distribution segments of the utility value chain.