Letting the big picture unfold

An implementation of SAP HANA at United Energy and Multinet Gas has shown how, with the right vision, the in-memory platform can become a powerful vehicle for business engagement and evolving use cases. Freya Purnell reports.

Regulated Victoria electricity business United Energy serves approximately 640,000 customers, while Multinet Gas is the largest distributor of natural gas in Victoria, owning the distribution network assets to transport gas from the high-pressure transmission network to around 660,000 residential, commercial and industrial gas customers.

The organisations operate an outsourced business model, and faced challenges in managing their complex IT environment and responding quickly to the volume of information coming from their networks.

United Energy and Multinet Gas (UE & MG) were seeking to deploy a central data platform capable of managing large volumes and different types of data, to enable IT to drive value for the business.

Anna Manojlovic, manager, IT strategy and architecture, United Energy, headed the platform selection process. The key driver for this process was the enterprises’ heavily outsourced operating model, which sees an IT team of 23 servicing both companies.

“We needed a platform that a small team could sustain, keep on developing and delivering in a rapid fashion, and that made us choose HANA,” says Manojlovic.

While many people were sceptical that a team of just three could handle such a significant piece of technology, Manojlovic is adamant that it can be.

“[To implement HANA] you don’t have to be a huge company, you can still be a small or medium business, and with a very small team get benefits,” she says.

Building the business case

Basile Sepsakos, head of IT, United Energy, says when developing the business case for SAP HANA, their vision for the role the platform would ultimately play in the organisations’ IT infrastructure was actually still “a little unclear”. They initially chose a use case that would deliver certain financial benefits to justify the project, but with a bigger picture in mind.

“There was a vision to have a democratic platform to bring data from disparate sources together, mash it up, and then see what you could deduct from it, because all of our data is very geographically oriented,” says Manojlovic.

One of the keys to convincing the executive to invest in HANA was providing a variety of use cases to demonstrate that it could be used for every business unit within the organisation, and the benefits of working with the business through interactive prototyping – a new approach for UG and ME.

“In the back of our minds, we thought we could use it for much broader things. But we had to get our foot in the door and understand the product a little better, how we were going to develop it, and deliver those initial financial benefits to make it a good news story,” Sepsakos says.

“Our executive team were able to have this vision and belief in what the future would look like if we had a platform like that available to us,” Manojlovic says.

Implementation

Using a predominantly outsourced project team and a traditional waterfall delivery model, there were some challenges around implementation.

“Because we were not deploying a standard warehouse, there was an element of innovation prototyping, exploration and laboratory which doesn’t translate well to waterfall,” Manojlovic says. “I firmly believe the majority of the team never understood what we really wanted from the platform. So there was an element of stress and frustration there.”

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the implementation was completed in four months, and came in just under budget. Sepsakos credits Manojlovic with having the right vision and being able to corral the various service providers into achieving it.

Collaboration in action

The original ‘quick win’ strategy has certainly paid off, with applications for the platform and engagement with the business “growing very, very quickly since the day we put it in”, says Sepsakos. The original business case was delivered within the first few days, and this gave IT the credibility and momentum to build on this initial success.

“We have a specialised team of three staff focused on information, insights, and bringing all the data together from disparate sources, but most importantly, working side by side with the business to take full advantage of what this SAP HANA platform offers,” Sepsakos says.

This team was later extended with other staff assigned full-time on a 12 month basis, to help enrich the platform with further data. They are individually assigned to work with different parts of the business on how to get the most out of the platform and produce better outcomes.

This close collaboration with the business has yielded important changes to the original two-year roadmap for the platform, and is also driving high levels of adoption and engagement.

“We have got maybe 25 per cent of the business fully engaged in using this platform. It’s been quite a success story given that it’s only eight months since it went live,” Sepsakos says.

Business benefits

HANA has now enabled UE and MG to analyse several years of data and run various complex modelling scenarios very rapidly, which has resulted in significant improvements in their forecasting ability.

Most of the data used by the two companies has now been geographically enabled, making it possible to mash up unexpected types of data and obtain insights not previously possible across every business unit.

“There is an element of business efficiency on the platform – things that you could deliver through a traditional data warehouse or other reporting method, but with HANA it’s much faster. But the second stream of benefits comes from new capabilitues and this approach to interactive prototyping with the business which has never been done before,” Manojlovic says.

“Basically the platform is truly democratic. We discovered we don’t really work well with end requirements written upfront, but when you bring in data and show it to the business, the process suddenly goes really fast, and they know what they want, they know how they want it, and I think that was the reason why we had such a big uptake.”

Regulatory compliance is a major issue in the utilities sector, and this was an important part of the business case for HANA. The platform will help United Energy and Multinet Gas to move towards becoming ‘intelligent utilities’, by better utilising large volumes of meter data to inform asset maintenance and service. HANA has enabled this by showing patterns that were not discernable when they were only able to analyse data fragments.

“We are using the technology to understand particular types of events that have occurred in the past on the network, so now we have a pattern that we have discovered through that analysis on the platform, and we can get that information in real time. Even before a customer calls to tell us that they are off supply, we should have the ability to know that something is about to fail, so we can have someone out there to do the work,” Sepsakos says.

Ahead on the agenda is using HANA to enable better electricity network intelligence for United Energy, improving reporting and business intelligence for Multinet Gas, and ultimately creating cockpits for the two businesses to provide a 360 degree view of assets and of customers.

Advice for others looking to implement HANA

Manojlovic says understanding what you want HANA to do for the business is important – is it a warehouse, or an innovation platform? Both recommend working closely with partners such as SAP, and reaching out to others who have implemented HANA before, rather than trying to go it alone.

Given the success of the project in terms of user adoption and business engagement, it’s no surprise that Sepsakos would take a similar approach if they had their time over.

“Keep it short, sharp, and support one particular business case that will stand up strongly. But as soon as you get that business case in, be prepared to have a vision and a team that’s agile, nimble and works closely with the business. Be prepared to change, don’t get fixated on a particular path, and share, share, share,” he says.

“If you do take that approach, you will become a partner with the business, and be able to provide ideas on how they could use it to create information insights and do some predictive analytics. Just make sure you have an agile approach and throw waterfall out the window.”

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