Enhancing Customer Experience through Digital Transformation in the Utilities Industry

By Waco Bankston, SVP & CIO, NiSource

Digital Transformation is much more than simply replacing old, outdated information systems.  Rather, it’s about creating a modernized infrastructure that has direct and positive impacts on how the enterprise performs work. And this modernization of technology and digital transformation can have significant, positive impacts on how utilities improve the experiences of customers while forwarding environmental, social and governance outcomes.

At NiSource, we are well on our journey to modernizing our digital platforms, which will help us streamline field operations, empower customers with real-time information, better enable clean energy adoption, and enhance customer engagement and education.  Modernizing our digital infrastructure and systems will help us optimize field operations, such as asset management, maintenance, and outage response.  With modern, integrated GPS systems and geospatial in-the-field asset tracking, for example, we will be able to efficiently dispatch our workforce and effectively manage our extensive infrastructure, to best meet our customers’ needs when and where needed.  We will be able to consider traffic patterns, storm paths, crew locations and other variables that will help ensure we get to our customer’s needs as efficiently and effectively as possible, even before the customer knows of an issue.

Cutting-edge technology can be used to leverage data as an asset—enabled through data science and potentially the use of artificial intelligence to help protect our environment.

Enhancing our Customer Experience

The grids of today will look vastly different tomorrow and will help us all play a role in reducing our decarbonizing impact on the planet.  At NiSource, we are helping to do our part by investing in modern, advanced metering infrastructure, and by integrating digital technologies to help enable the integration of renewable energy sources, along with natural gas, into the grid.  These digital technologies will help aid in our ability to better monitor and manage energy demand while achieving clean energy goals.

Building Efficiencies in our Field Operations

Our field crews need updated tech to help them more efficiently perform their work.  And we want them to work within an environment that enables them to do their best work, which leads to the best customer experiences possible.   Over the next several years, we are focused on transforming how we work in the field and how we go about managing field assets.  This includes some items, such as the anticipated replacement of our tech stack for scheduling, dispatch, work management, and asset tracking and management. 

Protecting Our Environment

Cutting-edge technology can be used to leverage data as an asset—enabled through data science and potentially the use of artificial intelligence to help protect our environment. Modern technologies could reduce inefficiencies in fleet management and carbon emissions, optimize the allocation of resources, and minimize travel time, therefore reducing fuel consumption.  Further, proactive maintenance of assets will help us establish better maintenance strategies by scheduling regular inspections, repairs, and replacements.  This will help us identify and address potential issues before they occur or cause disruptions to service.  This includes how efficiently our field crews are able to respond to our customers’ and communities needs.  In addition, this proactive maintenance approach can help extend the life of assets, preventing the need to replace assets prematurely and thus promoting better resource conservation.

Creating a Positive Work Environment

Finally, cultural transformation is not typically thought of in the context of digital transformation.  It is impossible, in my view, to digitally transform an organization without transforming the behaviors and cultural norms that exist within a “business as usual” company.  Digital transformations often fail when they are not met with appropriate leadership—leadership that empowers and pushes decision making as far down the chain as possible, allowing those closest to the work to make decisions.  Autonomy is also key.  When individuals know better, they do better and it’s our job as leaders to create an environment that fosters the norms and values required for transformational success.  After all, at the end of the day, digital technologies do not run themselves; rather, they require people to take action to operate.  And the actions individuals take on a day-to-day basis are typically rooted in their belief systems generated from a lifetime of experiences.  So, to enable digital transformation, leaders must ensure they focus more on the new experiences created for individuals such that their mindsets better align with the mindset required for organizational success, including that of environmental sustainability and continuous customer experience improvement.

In summary, to achieve our goals and continually enhance how our customers experience us, we must embrace change and a significant part of this change involves technology, which will change how we go about performing work. Instead, we must realize that to embrace change and new digital technologies, we must also help individuals change and demonstrate that change, more times than not, results in a better future.  At NiSource, we are including our employees and field teams in the solutions we are building—together!  And together, we are committed to continuing to do our part to embrace change through digital transformation to help improve our communities and to help our customers lead healthier and more productive lives.

This article includes forward-looking statements and expressions of future goals and expectations. These are based on expectations and assumptions that could change in the future.

Author Bio:
Charles (Waco) Bankston serves as the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer for NiSource. He oversees the strategic direction and management of the company’s enterprise technology platforms. In this role, he is responsible for the company’s overall technology roadmap, including digital transformation solutions.  

Waco has more than 20 years of executive and senior leadership experience in the electric utility, technology and telecommunications industries, most recently serving as STP Nuclear Operating Company’s General Manager, Corporate Services. In this role, he was responsible for establishing and executing Information Technology strategy and leading the country’s first US-based nuclear power plant’s cyber security program. While at STP he also served in the role of Director, IT and was responsible for planning and executing the firm’s technology roadmap and integration strategies. Prior to STP, Waco was a senior leader at CenturyLink, Inc. (now Lumen Technologies) overseeing technology integration programs associated with the company’s acquisition growth strategy.