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National Grid's David Lister on current tech

National Grid CIO David Lister is head of IT for a company that is feelig the impact of a sea-change in how we manufacture energy. It's a basic requirement of civilisation but also one of the most modern technological developments that requires a flexible approach to integrate traditional fossil fuel energy with renewable sources.

Lister describes the role of IT as using data in a more creative way to guarantee supply.

“The parallel of the new energy supplies, and how we use technology to predict events so that we can maintain assets and avoid failure, is the real challenge of the next 20 years.”

He relishes the challenge. “We have 215,000 miles of linear assets and all that needs to be connected through to the control centres.”

Many of the people in Lister’s team are from an engineering background rather than pure IT.

To meet this challenge Lister has been transforming IT at National Grid since he joined, beginning, he says, by looking at the technology according what the organisation had that was different, what could be re-used and what could create operational excellence.

“We’ve always been good at operational excellence, and now it is a question of how we take it to the next level,” he says.

The pylons of the National Grid IT network are an SAP back office systems and GSM for the important field work.

To improve operational effectiveness Lister has modernised the telepresence systems to improve collaboration between the US and UK operations, email, collaboration, intranet and document management has moved to software-as-a-service.

Further cloud adoption is following as National Grid puts its infrastructure onto a common private cloud operated by CSC.

“We’ve looked at our applications and categorised them from critical to national infrastructure, right through to what could sit on a public cloud. We’ll put critical system assets in our datacentre and then we will have a smaller, more focused, datacentre infrastructure. Applications not in that critical set have been placed on the hosted CSC infrastructure,” he says.

This has led to a cull of between 500 and 600 applications from the National Grid portfolio and reduced the overall application count from 1500.

“It takes a lot of time in business and data rationalisation to look at it holistically,” he says of the transformation project that started when he joined National Grid from RBS in February 2009.

The transformation programme has a five-year tenure and Lister says it’s very focused on the long term of the organisation.

“I think we have done the easy things, we are now on the harder projects,” he says.

“In the US we have six different works management systems due to M&A activity, and one of our business tasks is to move from multiple works management systems to one.

“Grasping the opportunity to make life easier for the workers is equally as important as rationalising. So we are investing in new tools and new approaches,” he says.

“With maintenance scheduling, when there is a call we need to know where engineers are, what skills they have and if they have the right materials with them, and then follow up on any repairs. We need to do all of that in a way that helps the engineer be safe, as safety is ingrained in our culture and it is something you are never good enough at.

“Our transformation programme is driving down our opex while our capex is going up and we are reaping the benefits while preparing for the demands of the future model of our sector. The organisation has a capex of £3.5bn. IS is not the major part of that, but it is an important part.”

Covering the field

Throughout the interview Lister talks of the network’s assets. The National Grid’s assets stretch across (or under) the land and so does its workforce.

Like many CIOs in the utilities space, Lister is very focused on the technology needs and opportunities for field workers.

“In the past we have been conservative, but technology can help our colleagues in the field be more effective and I am interested in creating information flows for safety stories, to use consumer devices to do their jobs better. Rugged device versus iPhone? Yammer and Huddle are part of our engagement and it’s good to listed to the heartbeat of the company and being connected to all that is only a good thing.”

Despite its financial and geographical size, National Grid’s IT team of just 500 is lean, which makes partnership a powerful element of the technology strategy.

“We have an interesting eco-system of partners that includes HP for service integration – they work to drive the rest of the services cluster – and IBM and Wipro for application development and management. IBM also provides collaboration and the infrastructure is managed by CSC. Verizon and Cable & Wireless are our key network partners.”

“I am excited by new content, new industries and I have been amazed by how interesting this energy infrastructure business is. Ten years ago I would have laughed at the idea of being here,”

Lister says of his career which has seen him as IT leader at Reuters and the Royal Bank of Scotland. He says he’s not struggled to move from sector to sector and believes many of the challenges are identical.

Lister is adamant that one of the keys to success is to have a good work/life balance and makes a point of getting the odd round of golf in.

Interview over, and although Lister is dressed in a relaxed Friday dress code, he’s soon off to the next meeting to continue the highly charged atmosphere of transformation clearly present at National Grid.

See also: National Grid CIO David Lister on keeping the lights on


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