Andrew Quail, Head of IT at SGN, explains how the energy supplier is transforming its mobile app delivery. Sharon Clancy reports...
Gas companies are one of the most heavily regulated in the UK – after all, gas leaks have the potential to be fatal.
The UK’s energy sector regulatory regime is acknowledged as world-class, but safety and innovation are rarely comfortable bedfellows, and innovation has not traditionally been a strong point for the UK’s utilities companies, who have focused on meeting the demands of the industry regulator Ofgem.
So we were intrigued to hear that one of the UK’s biggest gas distributors, SGN, is embarking on a business transformation process that includes greater use of mobile tools and data for its 2,000 strong field service engineers.
SGN distributes natural and green gas to 5.9 million homes and businesses across Scotland and the south of England via a network of over 75,000 km of gas mains and services.
"Critical business processes such as emergency gas response procedures have been automated for over a decade and have been mobilised to help ensure SGN meets it legal obligations to respond within an hour to any reports that might indicate a potentially lethal gas leak"
“The safety culture at SGN is core to our business and will never diminish. Data on performance has to be accurate and readily available to the regulator, and mobile data played a big role in providing that,” explains Andrew Quail, Director of IT at SGN.
Quail credits Ofgem with now encouraging an innovative climate that still puts safety first.
“We have relied on our mobile solutions for over a decade to deliver safety-critical services. Our legacy estate was great for some parts of the business: it’s solid, reliable and highly available.”
“However, with the legacy estate, if we change a piece of code or an element within an app, it has potential to affect other things.”
With such a large field workforce, SGN could appreciate the benefits of mobilising other activities in its business.
“Our existing estate was not agile enough to meet the changing needs of our customers and employees,” continued Quail.
“Customised apps take too long to develop and deploy and we wanted faster improvements to our efficiencies and customer services.”
"At the same time, we could not risk any mobility initiative affecting our ability to respond to core emergency repair work. We also wanted to control app distribution to ensure it met our IT security needs.”
"The solution has been to retain the legacy SAP platform for emergency gas response services, while deploying Kony Inc’s MobileFabric cloud-based mobility platform to develop and maintain mobile apps for other parts of the business"
MobileFabric decouples corporate front- and back-end systems so changes can be made quickly.
Connectors and adaptors means back-end integration for mobile apps is configurable and flexible rather than being custom-built.
“We were looking for a platform that would allow us to quickly develop well-designed apps that are attractive to our workforce.”
“At the same time, we wanted to capture data in a standard format that could be distributed and presented to any part of the business.”
“Mobile Fabric is an enterprise-grade mobility platform which is tightly integrated into our legacy systems. One of the attractions was the fact that is cloud-based, says Quail.
“It is a scalable consumption-based model requiring minimum financial commitment. That reduces the risks to our business.”
A cloud-based solution also suits the fast-paced environment of mobility services, he thinks, and help delivers quick wins.
“Our first priority has been to develop customer focused apps to improve the whole customer experience.”
“So one of the first apps we have deployed is a is a customer satisfaction app that has digitalised feedback."
“We get real-time feedback into our ERP system, which means we get early notification of any potential issues for customers and we also get to hear about customers’ positive experiences – which was not always the case in the past” - Andrew Quail, Director of IT at SGN.
“We get real-time feedback into our ERP system, which means we get early notification of any potential issues for customers and we also get to hear about customers’ positive experiences – which was not always the case in the past.”
Another benefit, says Quail, is the app allows SGN to respond quickly to employee and customer suggestions about improving service.
The app was developed and deployed within weeks – much quicker than on a legacy platform and at much lower cost, points out Quail.
IT directors have form when it comes to security concerns about Cloud computing, but Quail is one of the converts who believe Cloud platform services actually can enhance IT security. “
There is no denying that IT security is a sensitive topic and an area with potentially huge corporate risk for SGN.
However, cloud platform providers invest heavily in security, and we are confident the Kony platform is actually extremely secure.”
Moving to a mobility platform has also enabled SGN to define exactly what security standards it needs in various parts of the organisation, he explains.
So what’s in the pipeline for the future, we asked?
There are lots of possibilities for efficiency improvements beyond the regulatory environment enthuses Quail.
“We don’t want mobile app development to be a top-down process where IT comes up with all the new apps. We are encouraging our colleagues and employees to suggest what mobile apps might improve their work experience”
Quail believes the introduction of mobile apps will help change the image of IT within the business from enforcer to enabler.
“We don’t want mobile app development to be a top-down process where IT comes up with all the new apps. We are encouraging our colleagues and employees to suggest what mobile apps might improve their work experience.”
Nor is it just field service engineers who are benefiting from the digitalisation of the business, says Quail.
“The Internet of Things” is beginning to transform our operations. When we deploy robots for pipe inspections, for example, we’ll be capture that data in real-time helping us to optimise maintenance with less disruption for our customers.”