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Learning from Waterloo: Computer Information Systems Will Carry the Day

Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 1995

in the same direction. Frank Mantha, financial systems analyst with Niagara Mohawk, describes how his group fashions information-gathering templates to direct the trade show team to collect certain types of information: "When we go to a trade show, such as the PC Expo in New York, we'll fashion a little database for the 10 to 15 Niagara Mohawk people who are attending the show. The database template actually becomes a punch list for us to go to the show with and research products. It takes us literally five minutes to create one of those applications. [This] becomes the working mechanism for us to plunder a trade show with."

On a day-to-day basis, Niagara Mohawk realizes it must keep its competitive sights tightly focused on commodity purchasing of natural gas. Supplier and pricing intelligence is key. Mantha explains that his firm has geared its information system toward understanding the dynamics of gas supply and acting upon the intelligence: "The people in the war room, gas-supply specialists, have managed to negotiate the lowest gas rates in New York State. It's the quality of the people there, and the ability of those people to manage information, including textual information, that enables them to prosper, and not be bound up in the day-to-day intricacies of finding paper."

Niagara Mohawk not only uses the information system to communicate among internal gas-supply specialists, but also with other gas suppliers. This supplier focus has allowed Niagara Mohawk to break out of the traditional utility box. Its market intelligence has become seamless (em internal information mixed with external information, all equally available to the decisionmakers who need to make potentially costly decisions.

Bring Yourself Up to Speed

Utilities, like most risk-averse companies, tend to sit on information, delay decisions, and lose opportunities. In an increasingly competitive market, however, they need to find ways to save time digesting information. They need to act faster than ever before.

Speed and focus go hand in hand. Cathy Clark, a communications manager for Duke Power, describes how her organization kept management constantly informed of competitive activity, using groupware to reduce planning time significantly: "When we did strategic planning in prior years, we spent about 13 days (em first getting people up to the same level of understanding on the many issues, then the planning time itself. This year we spent two days of our executives' time, because we've been keeping people informed as we go along. If you calculate the chairman's staff time at $1,000 an hour, plus support people, the benefits for our decisionmakers begin to add up."

A speedy rate case is the ultimate utility oxymoron. Utilities can spend countless thousands of man-hours of time, collecting data and responding to interrogatories during discovery. Inefficient collection and analysis consumes management's time and creates market-dragging delays. Along with these distractions come postponed investment decisions and marketing initiatives.

"This regulatory process is what we were focused on," recalls Pat Patterson, regulatory systems manager for Florida Power & Light Co. (FP&L), explaining why FP&L decided to jump to a

groupware-based solution. The investment in manpower and