A couple of weeks ago I traveled across Canada for the purpose of meeting with customers and partners and, as usual, I gained some great new insights into what is going on in different parts of the world. The message I heard: “All is not lost.” Indeed, far from it.

image Yes, despite the doom and gloom that’s so frequently heard in the international news, things are moving ahead in many parts of the world! That news was welcome (as was the winter weather (cold in Toronto and snow in Calgary!), as a respite from the warm winters I experience at my Florida home).

During my travels, I thought that with the economic downturn and the new economy that we live in today that I would find Canadian utilities taking a very conservative approach to implementing new initiatives and projects, to conserve cash and wait out the economic uncertainty.

 

 

OK, Maybe it wasn’t that cold! (Jon at Banff National Park, in Alberta's Rockies, Canada)

What I found that was that, yes, Canadian power and utility companies are looking to get the most from every dollar they intend to spend but they have not curled up into a hole to wait for the cold economic winter to blow over.
Quite the contrary! Everywhere I went I was astounded by the number of projects that each power or utility company had underway, in different phases of completion. Whether it was new ways to get an edge in the retail business, smart metering, optimizing power plant/fleet operations or trying to put in a new energy management or distribution automation for the smart grid, every single meeting (ten in total) produced intense discussion about best business practices and how technology can help them become more successful by changing the way they work. In some cases this entails the most difficult undertaking of changing culture and behavior, and finding the familiar systems that can ease that process.
Maybe it’s the fact that Canada has undergone deregulation for most of the country and the Utilities have already experienced those growing pains that they are focused now on being successful in their business. That could be it.
Whatever it is, there’s no turning back and they continue to look to flexible, agile technology systems to take them to the next level. It was nice to be a part of those conversations and feel the optimism that technology change brings.
A couple of themes stuck out during my trip… Unified Communications for improving employee communications and collaboration. It goes without saying that except in the trading area, Utilities have been very slow to adopt solutions like instant messaging. But now between the new workforce and the realization that tools like unified communications can vastly improve operations by bringing subject matter experts together utilities are envisioning new opportunities. In one discussion with a CIO we brainstormed about creating grouping of SMEs that could help employees with their new SAP deployment. Say an employee is in the purchasing model and is stuck and can’t complete the process. Instead of dumping their session the employee could look at the UC groupings of fellow employees that are experts in SAP purchasing, check and see who is available then IM them for instant help rather than aborting the purchasing session and starting over. Think about it. That’s a real time and money saver plus helps with satisfaction of that new SAP system that the company spent so much money on.
Another one was the almost universal deployment of SharePoint across the Utilities. Everything from customer portals (one Utility is deploying their second generation customer portal on SharePoint), to knowledge management across the enterprise to portals to vastly improve plant and delivery operations.  During one conversation with a large power generation company I showed a SharePoint screen that pulled together a summary of plant fleet information such as heat rates, emissions compliance, capacity, etc. The customer said that he dreams about having this screen every night before he goes to bed.
Customer care and business-to-business customer relations was the other theme that came to light and it just wasn’t the retail utility operations either. All utilities have customers whether they are retail customers or power generators which have B2B relationships with the grid operators. Many of the Utilities either had or were in the process of implementing B2B or B2C portals using SharePoint or Dynamics CRM to support their needs.
As you can tell, I was impressed by the business strategies being deployed by the Power and Utility companies in Canada and I can’t wait for my next trip – hopefully in the spring – Jon Arnold, Managing Director, Microsoft Worldwide Utilities