Merging the IT/Operations Silos

 by Warren B. Causey and Bart Thielbar, Five Point Partners LLC

There was a day when oil and water didn’t mix, lambs did not lie down with lions, east and west did not converse and at utilities, those in operations technology (OT) didn’t trek with those in information technology (IT) or vice versa. Although such dichotomies are found in many areas of human experience, poet Rudyard Kipling perhaps expressed it best for all time in “The Ballad of East and West” having written “Never the twain shall meet.”

Guess what? In all these areas, the twain are meeting. Water is a major resource in the extracting of oil and gas from shale formations, there have been some interesting domestications of all kinds of wild animals, East and West (the U.S. and Europe and the Far East) are inextricably entwined in financial and trade arrangements. And at many utilities, OT and IT are conversing, and in some cases they are sitting at the same consoles and blending their capabilities to enable smarter grids and deal together with other utility challenges.

The breaking down of the operations and IT silos at utilities has been a multiyear—even multidecade—process, and it is not yet complete, nor might it ever be complete. Some utility chief information officers (CIOs), including Jim Kensok at Avista Utilities, don’t believe that would be entirely appropriate.

“We certainly have our challenges like anybody does, but it wouldn’t matter whether we’re in the utility industry or not; those silos are going to exist,” Kensok said. “When I was in high-tech companies, they were the same. But the IT and OT silos, I would say, will never completely disappear, but our walls are down low enough now that you’re stepping over them and and not running through them. I think they’re appropriate-level silos, personally. To take them completely down would be a mistake.”

JEA CIO Wanyonyi Kendrick has a similar outlook.

“No, and I’m not sure that I want to,” Kendrick said. “I am the senior manager responsible for critical cybersecurity and that’s also responsible for signing off on NERC CIP. I’ve seen just that regulatory process really break down many of the barriers because we’re all working towards the same goal; however, operations owns our SCADA system, and they will continue to own it, and as of right now, that’s fine with me. I have great working relationships with the operations side of the house, and so we’re able to achieve our goals.”

A.R. Mullinax, Duke Energy Corp. CIO, said that some of his staff sit at the same consoles in the operations center with their OT counterparts to enable better collaboration between the two sides. That might be a relative exception to the rule, but there seems to be increasing collaboration between the two groups.

There are several reasons why silos, especially those between OT and IT, have existed at utilities for many years. These include:

  • OT antedates IT by some 80 years. OT has been around since Thomas Edison and has kept the lights on more than 100 years. There is a certain amount of gravitas that comes with that history.
  • OT is directed primarily by electrical engineers; IT is the province of computer engineers. That division of knowledge and authority is ingrained during college and continues on into the work world.
  • IT began as data processing and tended to work in the basement with such mundane tasks as getting bills out and accounting for money. CIOs as strategic leaders didn’t really emerge until the latter part of the 20th century, which isn’t that long ago. The head of data processing didn’t really equate with chief engineers.
  • For most of their history, chief engineers went on to become CEOs of investor-owned utilities and general managers of publicly owned ones. The deregulation movement of the late 1990s first compelled many boards of directors to begin to bring in business and financial expertise at the top, thus gradually easing engineers out of the top seat in many places.

With those evolutionary changes gradually elevating IT organizations and their chiefs in corporate hierarchy, IT began to gain a seat in more meetings. Then along came the smart grid concept, which consists of the physical grid’s being overlaid with a communications and IT grid.

As Andreas Carvallo, former CIO at Austin Energy, put it in his book “The Advanced Smart Grid,” “One of the basic concepts of the smart grid is the integration of information and communications technologies (ICT) into the power system to make it more cost effective, efficient, reliable, and cleaner and provide customers with actionable information about their energy use so they can control their costs.”

This integration cannot occur without breaking down some of the traditional silos at utilities. Challenges OT and IT face together include:

  • Cybersecurity. As the physical grid becomes more closely integrated with the cyber one to enable advanced metering, automated reclosers, phasor measurement units and remotely controlled devices, as well as artificial intelligence devices, protection of these systems becomes ever more critical. Large utilities report tens of thousands of hacking attempts each month, most of them relatively harmless, some of them attempted penetrations by hostile foreign powers.
  • Using IT to keep the grid stable as variable resources are added. When the wind dies or clouds cover the sun, adjustments must be made quickly—even bringing up entire power plants. These adjustments must be made quickly with little margin for error, sometimes well beyond the capabilities of human engineers throwing manual switches.
  • Major software systems such as ERP, GIS, mobile data, meter data management and others play on both sides of the traditional OT-IT silo divide. Ownership and operation of such systems increasingly is becoming a shared responsibility between OT and IT.

To say that the silos have entirely broken down would be incorrect. There still are separations of authority and even, at some utilities, a continuing lack of daily interaction. There is ample anecdotal evidence of this. Even at those where the silos still exist, however, there are efforts to break them down, as Mike Harris, CIO at Clark Public Utilities in Vancouver, Wash., pointed out.

“We have a traditional division of responsibilities between those responsible for operation of our grid and our IT organization,” Harris said. “As digital technology begins to permeate operations management, we find an increasing role in supporting the network and communications infrastructure. While the IT structure is well-entrenched, the operations IT systems are more centered on monitoring and managing our grid. Our role is evolving into providing the technical network expertise and the basic computing tools to provide the support so that our operations group can more efficiently do their job and deliver great service to our customers.”

Our modern society has brought about many things that some of us might not have anticipated 20 or 30 years ago.

The gradual growing together of OT with IT at utilities is one of them.

It’s hard to say how Kipling might have felt about the twain actually not only meeting, but beginning to learn to work together.

Author

Warren B. Causey is vice president of strategy, research and advisory services at Five Point Partners LLC, a utility consulting firm headquartered in Atlanta. Reach him at warren.causey@fivepoint.net.

Bart Thielbar is vice president at Five Point Partners LLC. Reach him at bart.thielbar@fivepoint.net.   

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