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Learning from Waterloo: Computer Information Systems Will Carry the Day

Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 1995

in sheer numbers of hours are staggering. The process involved a tremendous volume of paper (em each and every piece had to be reviewed and re-reviewed. Delays cropped up because it was difficult to decide who should read and sort through a particular document.

Patterson relates an informational horror story: "We had

several deadlines over a two-year period. To meet just the first requirement for statements required about 33,000 pages. As the case went to trial phase, we had 9,000 pages of transcripts. ... Trying to keep track of what everybody had said with that volume of material was about to drive everybody crazy. On top of that, we might go through 10 or 15 drafts.

"Under the old process, you might send, receive, and forward groups of documents back and forth. For instance, you might send a document to eight people and get back eight people's ideas on how to answer it. You had to take all these responses and assimilate the information, figuring the best way to combine it all. This was random information, covering everything from organization to rate design to accounting. Everything and anything!"

Once the regulatory group switched the process over to groupware, they found it far more efficient and easier than the manual approach. While the man-hour dollar savings were great, it was probably balanced by the out-of-pocket initial costs incurred in purchasing the groupware software and systems packages. In the long run, the real victory for FP&L was its new-found speed and efficiency in making decisions and executing strategy; accomplishments not possible under the old way of managing information.

Patterson concludes, "We previously took a whole team of people to Washington with us. . . . It wasn't unusual to take 50 people on these trips. The groupware allowed us . . . to get it down to five."

Get Your Pigeons in a Row

As the FP&L case indicates, utilities will always suffer from information overload. Yet they need not become its victim. Information richness is no excuse for lack of competitiveness; it should have the opposite effect. Savvy energy companies, such as Enron, have tackled the information issue head on and won considerable market victories. Like Rothschild at Waterloo, they are nimble and willing to take risks. Are traditional utilities ready to do the same?

Technology is no substitute for a focused strategy. It is also no substitute for aggressive, firm corporate management. Therefore, when utilities consider installing a groupware system, they first need to refine their strategy. Be warned: It takes a great deal of corporate training and rethinking to use technology properly, as well as to deploy the right strategy. This has been the experience of nearly every utility cited here.

Gone are the days when utilities could simply raise rates to compensate for increased costs. Utility management must make firm, specific strategic choices today (em not in a few years. It must direct its troops to watch one or two market conditions (em not all. Telling your marketing people and field engineers "Let me know if you see anything" is