People: the highest of technologies

The importance of human beings in the effort to modernize not only the grid itself but the way the power industry operates.

“Sonny doesn’t think about things in the usual way.” That was part of Ventyx CEO Jeff Ray’s introduction to Sonny Garg’s keynote this morning, and it was apropos.

The Chief Information Officer at Exelon has taken a decidedly unconventional to the C-suite of a major US utility.  He’s done time in human resources, supply chain management and generation, and even worked as a White House advisor during the Clinton administration.

In his remarks on the role of technology in the power industry, Garg was unsparing with his industry colleagues sitting in the audience.

“Utilities are where innovation goes to die.  Edison could come back today and work at Exelon, but I could show this [his iPhone] to Alexander Graham Bell and he wouldn’t know what it was.”

Garg’s talk was a call to arms, but he steered well clear of presenting technology as a cure-all.  In fact, whether intentional or not, the one theme he returned to again and again was how important human beings are in the effort to modernize not only the grid itself but the way the power industry operates.

Garg’s IT team at Exelon underwent some serious introspection to come up with the “why, what and how” of its mission.  The “why” was fairly straightforward: to advance progress in the business and bring it in line with what has been done in telecom, entertainment and even banking.  The “what” Garg outlined with a set of strategic imperatives:

  • Optimize IT service delivery to “run this railroad better than anyone else.”
  • Monetize standardization to eliminate costly customizations that don’t deliver a competitive advantage and “clean up what we’ve already got.”
  • Invest in employees by building an “IT academy” and giving IT professionals a career path appropriate to their skill set.
  • Invest in high-value technologies by creating a team to champion the needle-moving technologies that otherwise would “die on the vine” of utility bureaucracy.
  • Shoring up information security to protect the assets and integrity of the power system

It’s clear from these priorities that Exelon is aware of the vital role people play in the application of technology, but Garg went one better.  In explaining how people drive technological change, he waded hip-deep into the murky waters of human interaction, emotion and motivation.

“The best ideas come from the people who do the work,” he said after noting that he himself doesn’t have that many good ideas about technology.

The problem, he pointed out, is that no one wants to stick their neck out to advocate for change.  There is also the problem of a “hero culture” that prizes individual sacrifice over collaborative effort.  Accordingly, Exelon actively seeks out ideas from the rank and file (e.g., the company is implementing three IT initiatives from over 150 submitted by employees), and Garg himself advocates strongly for openness.

Referring to the tendency for people to speak their mind after the meeting where their input would be most valuable, Garg offered his own aphorism that is worthy of a management book on its own.

“Have the meeting after the meeting IN the meeting.”  That’s good advice for any organization.

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About the author

Bob Fesmire

Bob Fesmire is a Strategic Communications Manager at ABB, based in Cary, North Carolina. He has written more than 120 articles and white papers on a variety of topics including smart grid technology, energy efficiency and industrial automation. In addition to his work at ABB, Bob is also the co-author of Energy Explained, a non-technical introduction to all aspects of the energy industry. Currently, he is working on an introduction to power generation for the lay reader.
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