How do you choose a CIS for the next 15-20 years?
Replacing a CIS is a process that most people in the utility industry only go through once. So chances are, it’s changed since the last time your utility did it. And candidly, given the transformation the industry is in the midst of, if it hasn’t, it really should.
In his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey famously recommended to “begin with the end in mind.” But when utilities define “the end” of their CIS replacement as go-live, it fails to take into account everything that comes after go-live. In reality, the launch of a new CIS platform is not the end…it’s the beginning.
If the average lifespan of a CIS is 15 to 20 years, then the 18 to 24 months spent preparing and launching the system is just a fraction of the time that a utility is going to be living with the platform. What should be a priority is making sure that the CIS can grow and change with your utility over time. Will the CIS handle what the next 15 to 20 years are going to ask of it? Because, if history is any indication, time is going to ask a lot.
Have you acknowledged the rapidly changing landscape?
The CIS has changed. The last time that most utilities purchased a new CIS, the systems were asked to do little more than simple billing based on a monthly meter read. Today, CISs must handle interval meter reads and complex rates, often across multiple jurisdictions and types of service.
A CIS has to be able to support customer engagement on multiple channels. It has to assist in selling customers on energy efficiency. It needs to integrate with other technologies, like AMI. And these are only the things we know about today. A CIS also has to be flexible enough to be able to handle advances that we don’t even know about yet. And with the unprecedented rate of change that the utility industry is experiencing, those advances are inevitable.
The ability to handle a changing industry and the unseen advances that will come in the next 15 to 20 years is what should define whether or not a CIS purchase was successful. You should be considering the entire journey when judging a new CIS, not just implementation. Before you begin the journey, we would like to offer a list of important things to consider when deciding on a new CIS.
How will the CIS impact your ability to attract and retain employees?
The most difficult thing about updating to a modern CIS is finding the talent needed to maintain the platform. The new CIS software is more robust and can include fairly specialized code. The number of IT professionals with enough broad technical and functional experience with this software is limited. Because the pool of qualified experts is small, this type of talent can be quite expensive. And depending on your utility’s location, they may be difficult to recruit regardless of compensation.
If finding employees is the top challenge, then retaining those employees is the second. The competitive nature of these positions means the turnover in the ranks of CIS experts is also high. Unless you’re prepared for a significant increase in payroll, you should consider just how much you’re willing to pay to build a team capable of maintaining your new CIS.
How much time and effort is required to sustain day-to-day operations?
One truth about software: It requires regular updates to maintain operability. Developers add new functionality requested by customers. They modify code to smooth operations or eliminate bugs. All of those improvements are missed if the new versions of the software aren’t installed. Yes, there may be an occasional update that can be skipped, but skip updates too often and the version of software that you’re running will become unsupported by the manufacturer, leaving you and your utility on your own.
So the question to ask now is, are you going to be able to make those upgrades in a timely fashion? And what work will be de-prioritized so the team can focus on upgrades?
In addition to software upgrades, your hardware ages too. New functionality on the upgraded software may require processors that run faster or larger storage capacities. The growth in data volumes and changes in the numbers of customers in your territory also drive the need for hardware upgrades. Without the people who can upgrade your hardware or a budget with room for those improvements, everything becomes less efficient, or worse: the system fails.
Can you easily make changes to the platform?
As much as we can fall into the trap of thinking our projects are the most important projects in our companies, we all live with limited resources. While we know how critical it is that routine CIS software maintenance happens so the utility can maintain operations, for overtaxed IT teams your needs are part of an ever-growing to-do list.
That understandable inability for IT to focus on functional improvements can sometimes prevent the CIS from meeting the utility’s business needs. What happens, for instance, when upgrades that are needed to facilitate customer self-service or provide proactive customer communications are delayed or never happen at all? Customer experience is negatively affected, lowering the levels of satisfaction and impacting the bottom line. And since maintaining the CIS is competing with other IT requests for priority, utilities will often see bigger projects get delayed into perpetuity.
How scalable is the software?
Life for a utility would be easier if populations stayed static. The question to ask here is, are you ready to handle changes in data volumes or a growth in the number of customers you serve? Will your system be able to easily scale up or down with population growth? If it can’t, you could be making expensive investments in new hardware just to be able to service a handful of new customers. Then what happens when the customer load drops again? Now, you’ve got more equipment than you need. This, of course, assumes you’ve been able to put together a team of IT folks who have the capabilities and time to add the necessary hardware.
Even if the population were to stay static, scalability would still be a concern. Unless all of the utility data is being archived, the challenges of cumulative data growth must be addressed. Data volumes are also growing as the industry is able to get a more granular look at usage levels. Will your CIS be able to manage the large volume of data generated by AMI? Since advancements like that aren’t going to be slowing any time soon, accommodations for those improvements need to be considered.
With all this uncertainty, how can you get a predictable total cost of ownership (TCO) and provide your business with guaranteed service levels? Even in the midst of the transformation taking place in the utility industry, there is a way to make sure that the waters stay smooth over the next 15 to 20 years.
Of course, a strong launch is critical to any CIS implementation. But, our experience in hosting and managing utility CIS’s for nearly 20 years suggests that, in the end, the success of a CIS is not going to be defined by how well the implementation was handled. It’s going to be defined by the next 15 to 20 years and how well it performs.
That’s why, when it’s time to replace a CIS, it’s important that utilities find technology that will allow them to stay on top of industry changes at a reasonable expense. It’s why utilities need a partner that is committed to the long-term success of the CIS over the next 20 years.