Three Utility Systems Integration Tips & Tricks

Three Utility Systems Integration Tips & Tricks

Does data have your head spinning? Here are a few tips and tricks for successful systems integration in the Utilities sector.

As the West Monroe team gears up to attend DistribuTech this week (Booth #2761), we expect there to be plenty of buzz around enterprise data analytics solutions. Through enterprise data analytics initiatives, value is driven at the data intersections across technologies, systems, and business domains. West Monroe works closely with our clients to integrate systems to enable these intersections. In this blog post, we highlight three tips and tricks to simplify systems integration and focus on the right outcomes.

Tip #1: Start with the end-product in mind.

A driving factor in utility enterprise data programs is the data resulting from Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) technologies. AMI has been disruptive in the sector, opening utilities to new data and with them, capabilities not previously available (more AMI info). Along with this data has come new digital experiences both internally (operations efficiency) and externally (customer facing). New questions are being asked of this data:

  • What does my customer need?
  • What are the digital behaviors of my customer?
  • What are operating KPIs across business units?
  • Are we investing in the right areas?
  • How do we improve the efficiency of handling AMI events?

Utilities are capturing and processing a host of valuable data, but many are finding it difficult to link their data to clear, actionable goals. The crux of this is causing business areas to think proactively about how to put their data to work. As IT teams position themselves to accommodate this, there will be much needed emphasis around developing and thoroughly vetting use cases to derive value from this data.

Trick: develop user-centric use cases

Use cases create a user-focused model for how data will be used by key stakeholders. They help identify the goals and objectives that a system must fulfill to help ensure true business value and what the user really wants is developed. By performing use case authoring early on in a project, clarity is driven for the desired functional features and services. This clarity prevents obfuscation and complication of trivial details that is often speculated by the developer and system insider.

A use case should be constructed with the intention of having very high usability, manageability and effectiveness. To this end, the framework and process for capturing the use case should reflect these “user-centered” motives. Starting with the context of use, use case documents should identify the primary users of data (business or customer), key stakeholders (internal and/or external), and the overall how’s and why’s of the data that will be used by these groups. They should specify detailed requirements, including: involved systems, interaction diagrams, comprehensive data specifications, acceptance criteria, and final outputs.

Trick: invest time to perform quality requirements gathering and develop documentation

One of the most powerful things about developing use cases is that it forces business owners to define and document main success scenario (minimum data requirements required for sign off and delivery) and the extension scenario fragments (any defined gap requirements and supporting documentation). Generation of this documentation requires input from various technical and business stakeholders and discussion around definition of the end state.

By analyzing a use case step by step from pre-integration to post-integration, exploring and investigating every action of the use case flows (main and extensions alike) to pinpoint tricky, commonly hidden and ignored, but realistically costly requirements, utilities can find a structured way to systematically retrieve clear, stable and quality requirements. Outside of the main use case, there is a need for extension documents to outline supporting details around functional and technical requirements, additional system features and gap data requirements, and evaluate requirements against a prioritized timeline.

Quality requirements gathering and structured documentation processes are the pillars of a successful systems integration, providing the means to an end, of creating a reputable and reliable source for which all parties involved can reference.

Trick: establish lineage between use case, data mapping, and testing documentation

There are obvious connections between the flow paths of a use case and its test cases. Well-developed use cases will include guidelines for the design of test cases, and prompt an actionable test case inventory that can be easily leveraged by IT teams, developers and User Acceptance Testing (UAT) groups. It is often straightforward to derive functional test cases from a use case through its scenarios (running different instances of a use case). Less straight-forward, it can be a challenge to source the right data to supply the use cases. The product of this can be documented in a Requirements Traceability Matrix (RTM), which links data requirements through the validation process. With the use case and RTM, requirements captured through a long and often rigorous stakeholder engagement process will be documented in a methodical and traceable way throughout the entirety of the systems integration timeframe.

Use cases, RTMs, and supporting requirements documents are created with the end goal of better facilitating and cataloging conversations between IT, development teams and business owners from pre-integration to post-integration.

Tip #2: Design for change.

Regardless of how much time and energy is placed into the requirements gathering and design processes, change is inevitable. Often, integration projects run in parallel with other transformational engagements, having project teams aiming at a “moving target”. To accommodate for these variables, utilities must design for change, and plan for phased adjustment and improvements to the end-product.

To avoid common pitfalls, it is worth considering this inevitable change going into a Systems Integration project. It is important to define clear dates for requirements finalization, and to be strict with adjustments to documentation falling outside of allotted time. This is best communicated with an eye towards later phases – with specific timelines. Business users are more accepting of delayed functionality if the duration of this delay is known.

Trick: choose an adaptable technology and framework

It is important to think of Systems Integration implementations as adaptable, not a static or one-time implementation. Focus should be placed into creating and supporting end data models by building well-documented and adaptable integration layers. Building an integration model flexible to change requires the following:

  • Work plans to support much of the upfront work to thoughtfully design, document and align teams, prior to execution
  • Leadership skills to organize, direct, inspire complicated teams
  • Investments in next generation workforce, including: utility staff that knows about the physics of the grid, and utility staff that knows about operations, controls and analytical systems
  • Investments into adaptable technology and associated training to enable change after initial investments

Market trends show that nearly 80% of the time spent on data analytics projects is attributed to data preparation. Utilities are looking for ways to reduce data preparation time, asking for more automation and an augmented analytics experience. For more information about how West Monroe thinks about adaptable data modeling, read about the Rapid Analytics Platform (more RAP info).

Trick: finalize requirements but communicate phased changes to these requirements

During Systems Integration, stakeholders can become weary of a dynamic, constantly changing set of specifications. While change is important to position, it is also important to stick to dates and lock in decisions in a changing environment – pushing necessary adjustments to later phases.

Tip #3: Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for utilities to overcome are the roadblocks that can often occur from communication gaps among siloed teams. Systems integration projects typically require an uncommon blend of both technical and business expertise to coordinate the outcomes sought after in use cases.

As a mix of business and technical teams and experts come together, clashing perspectives can be expected as each stakeholder has their own needs and desired end-goals. Successful systems integration requires extensive conversations to define, prioritize and execute on requirements, and healthy dialogue to surface the trivial yet critical perspectives held across individuals or teams. To obtain buy-in, different perspectives will need to be considered at every level of the requirement-definition and decision-making process.

Trick: develop a communication cadence and facilitate conversations across teams

While communication to define use cases is necessary, the trickier part will be maintaining a cadence of consistent communication throughout the development and integration process, to share findings, complications (i.e. data quality challenges across different system owners and teams), and redefine as needed the requirements and end goals of use cases. Facilitating these conversations through to a level of agreement will require skillful consultation and mediation through the appropriate channels, and get users on the same page.

Closing Notes
Systems integration projects are long and complex, with lots of moving pieces, many involved stakeholders, and various technology challenges. The technology challenges tend to take a backseat to the challenges that come with getting people aligned and communicating openly. It is important to ensure you have the right team with proper technology and functional skills in place. Thinking about how to get started? We hope these tips and tricks help you take the right step forward.

Phone: 312-602-4000
222 W. Adams
Chicago, IL 60606
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