The 6 Rules of Never: What a General Manager Must Know About Technology to Thrive

July 26, 2002

About the author: Alan Manning is the Chairman of the Board for EMA, Inc., St. Paul, Minn.

Have you had the experience of spending millions of dollars on GIS, Process Control, SCADA or CMMS but not seeing any change in your organization or work practices? While you made a huge investment in technology, have you received very little, if any, return in terms of productivity or savings for your utility?

Why does this happen? Why would any business spend millions of dollars and not expect an improvement in effectiveness, efficiency or quality? The answer to this question is that oftentimes people use technology to automate processes but do not change the associated work practices. They do not see the opportunities for a utility to grow and thrive. They do not think of using technology as a strategy to improve their productivity. Technology by itself will not lead to improved productivity.

You cannot apply technology without changing what people do or how they do it. The only way to get a return from technology is to have your staff specifically design a plan that involves all your utility's policies and procedures, assessing and modifying them to maximize the payback from integrated technology. This applies to utilities of any size.

Technology must be implemented as a strategy to thrive, to grow and improve.

Current State of the Utility

The last few years have seen a lull in the frenzy of competitive takeovers witnessed in the 1990s.Takeovers have slowed as the major players retrench, evaluating not only their acquisitions but also their big picture. You read almost daily of their problems: growing too fast, overextending themselves, diversifying into too many markets. In addition, the terrorist acts and threats of this past year have caused us all to pause and refocus on other things.

Competitiveness will be back with a vengeance. It is like an infection that is dormant right now , but you can be sure that we have not seen the last of privatization. Utilities must change their culture, mentally leaving behind the public sector and using continuous improvement to be able to compete on behalf of their customers. The opportunity for improvement still exists with only small improvements made in the last five years. (See Figure 1.)

The next wave is coming, and technology, carefully integrated into your organization's work practices, will put you in good standing with your customers now and with competitors when they come knocking later. The opportunity lies in the fact that right now you have the time to do it right.

What is Technology?

Just what do we mean by technology? Technology, just like its implementation, is a big picture, full of switches, valves, computers, gauges, software, wireless, relays, PLCs - virtually any tool that does something at your command. Technology includes the processes, whether manual, mechanical or electronic, that make your utility function in an orderly and accurate manner.

Without a doubt, the direction of technology is toward computerization, improving decision-making, knowledge sharing and automation, resulting in improved processes and improved hydraulics. One of the fastest growing areas is in wireless technology, reshaping our definition of workplace, work time and workforce. (See Figure 2.) Every bit of information and/or control now is available to the worker out in the field, greatly simplifying his work, allowing him to work faster and smarter and saving significant time and money.

Computer technology continues to advance exponentially just as costs have continued to decline. Today's PC is more powerful than the supercomputers of a few years ago. Moore's Law, named in 1965 after Dr. Gordon Moore of Intel, hypothesized that the number of transistors per integrated chip circuit would double every 18 months. Although he forecast that this trend would continue for ten years, through 1975, it has continued more than a quarter century beyond that. (See Figure 3.) Likewise, a comparison of automation functionality and cost showed that normalized value per input/output point greatly increased in functionality while dropping in cost over the last 20 years. (See Figure 4.)

The Concept of Technology as a Strategy

When you plan a technology project, you involve the organization and people who will be impacted by that project as part of a team. That team examines the way they currently do their work practices and then determines how it could be if they applied the appropriate enabling technology. This process (involving the people who will be impacted by the change) gets them to work together, identifying the ideal or best work practices. The new technology then will enable them to implement those best practices.

That is the key to technology as a strategy; you are not just applying technology, you are applying best business practices using technology.

The Six Never Rules of Technology

Rule 1: NEVER apply technology by itself. A technology upgrade always must include an analysis of your organization and your work processes in order to use technology as efficiently as possible. Don't repave the cowpath; straighten it out first!

Rule 2: NEVER apply technology without a business (ROI) plan. Your return on investment over 2 to 4 years will not only keep you on track, but also it will affirm your business case with your governing board. An investment must get a payback.

Rule 3: NEVER apply technology without user commitment to pain and dreams. Requirements must be clearly defined by staff at all levels, first by identifying their pains. Next, identify the problems people want to see go away, or the dreams people want to see come true. Commitment to the issues is as important as commitment to the solutions. Consensus is essential at all levels. This consensus will ensure that the users of the technology will have what they need. Diagnose before you prescribe!

Rule 4: NEVER apply technology without a total systems approach. You need to look at the big picture, reach to your vision, and remember that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Where do things fit? Where do they integrate? You are not working with a tree, but a forest!

Rule 5: NEVER work at the bleeding, dull or trailing edges. Always work at the cutting edge. Some risk-taking is required. Not taking any risk is the biggest risk of all.

Rule 6: NEVER complete a technology project without proving the derived benefit. Demand results. Prove the business case. This may, at times, require acknowledgement of unmet expectations, but that is the learning part of any project. Technology as strategy requires that a return on investment is proven, and it requires that results be achieved. Proving the benefits sends the right signal to all involved.

Applying technology as a strategy will make your organization thrive. Involving your employees throughout the planning and implementation process will assure you prove your business case. Technology as a strategy means using technology in harmony with best work practices to continuously change the way you do business!

About the Author

Alan Manning

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