SA Power Networks is the electricity distributor in the state of South Australia. It has developed a digital strategy program that incorporates the Microsoft 365 productivity cloud for a workplace transformation that mitigates siloed operations across a vast geographical area. Today, employees that work in the field use Microsoft Teams to share safety information in real time, helping to prevent and reduce incidents, coordinate emergency response teams, and improve service to keep the power on.
The digital strategy unveiled by SA Power Networks in 2018 signals a whole new way of working for this key player in South Australia’s energy industry. As the state’s sole electricity distributor, SA Power Networks builds, maintains, and upgrades the poles, wires, and substations that deliver power to 860,000 customers in urban, regional and remote areas across the southern central part of Australia. Today, the company has made considerable headway in its digital strategy initiative, ensuring the business develops new capabilities for employees, solutions for managing the network, and methods to better serve customers—ultimately enabling SA Power Networks to address disruptive trends in the industry.
Working together to improve safety
At SA Power Networks, working together is extremely important, especially in the no-compromise area of safety. “Ensuring the safety of our employees, our customers, and our equipment, followed by continuity of supply—keeping the power on—are our highest priorities,” says Paul Salter, Manager Operations Delivery Regional at SA Power Networks. “So, any tool we can use to improve safety is a massive benefit to our organization.”
That was the message that Henry Spaan, Regional Operations Manager at SA Power Networks, brought to IT when he asked for a better way to communicate about all areas of safety. He was particularly concerned about the high-risk task of switching—the process of turning off power in certain sections of the network for maintenance. Isolating sections of line from the power grid can be a very complicated process.
“I went to the IT team and said I needed a simple, effective method for two-way, real-time communication among switching mentors and trade skilled workers [TSWs],” says Spaan. “And I wanted the solution to be available on computers, laptops, and the phones that everyone carries when they’re working in the field. They proposed Microsoft Teams as the ideal solution, and they were right.” Microsoft Teams is part of the Microsoft 365 productivity cloud, which consists of Windows 10, Office 365, and Enterprise Mobility + Security.
The Switching Mentors Teams workspace connects 104 people: mentors and TSWs across rural South Australia, substations’ maintenance crews, construction personnel, and managers at the network control center who drive policy and procedures for maintaining the physical network. The site is a one-stop shop for information relating to switching and workplace safety. In one click, members can access mentors’ PowerPoint presentations, training curriculums, the switching operator’s handbook, safety committee meeting minutes, and videos explaining the safe way to operate equipment.
“The Switching Mentors Teams site is the best forum for communication we’ve ever had,” says Spann. “Now when a crew member 60 kilometers from the nearest depot and has a question about a new switching cubicle, for example, they use the Teams mobile app on their phone to send a quick question through chat and maybe attach a photo. Someone always responds right away. Sharing information across our depots builds a network of expertise that improves workplace safety.”
Expanding the role of Teams
Since the Switching Mentors collaboration hub launched in early 2019, several other Teams workspaces have emerged. Employees use the 24/7 Emergency Response Teams site to discuss improvements to policies and procedures. The Emergency Management Teams site—complete with live feeds from local weather sites—lights up during storm season when managers need to work together to deploy emergency response teams and restore power.
“We use Teams to store safety incident reports and share them among the leadership,” adds Salter. “Each report identifies what happened and the outcome. Everyone can review them, and they enrich our morning ‘toolbox’ meetings when we discuss daily issues that arise across the depots. The WHS [Work Health and Safety] rep can drive discussion about how to prevent the incident from recurring.”
“We set a goal of no switching incidents every year,” says Spaan. “For the first time, regional operations haven’t had a single switching incident this year, since the Switching Mentor program has been up and running on Microsoft Teams.”
“With Teams, switching operators and mentors in remote depots now have a voice to share their expertise and learn from colleagues,” adds Salter. “It’s an opportunity for all levels of the business to collectively raise their expertise and work together to improve safety assistance within SA Power Networks.”
Giving a voice to field workers
As IT worked more closely with the switching team, collaboration across the company’s network of 21 rural and 6 metro-based depots emerged as a significant pain point. Rural depots range from small outposts in isolated areas to larger communities such as Mount Barker, where 28 people work at a SA Power Networks facility. It can take up to four hours to drive from one depot to another in a state that covers approximately 380,000 square kilometers.
“Many companies are perceived as working in silos,” says Rob Riddell, Project Manager at SA Power Networks. “When we looked at platforms for collaboration across the organization, Microsoft 365 had the full gamut of solutions.”
To this end, field workers have embraced Yammer, the corporate social network in Office 365, to connect with far-flung colleagues. “Today, we have employees in their trucks in the outback, making videos on their phones about a piece of equipment, or offering suggestions to help someone else 1,000 kilometers away,” says Riddell. “It’s that instant connection with others that makes a difference, helping you feel part of a supportive organization that cares about your safety.”
Creating a highly secure workplace
The successful introduction of Teams and Yammer in field services marks the beginning of SA Power Networks’ workplace transformation to equip employees for the digital world. It underscores the value of mobile access to content and colleagues for a company where more than 50 percent of employees spend their days in the field. These employees use a combination of corporate-issued mobile phones and Microsoft Surface Go devices.
“We wanted to standardize a device that worked with the tools in Microsoft 365, and Surface Go is better aligned to that environment than Apple tablets,” says Jason Anthony, Portfolio Manager at SA Power Networks. IT uses Microsoft Intune, part of Enterprise Mobility + Security, to manage the mobile devices. It also uses Azure Active Directory Premium P1 for its identity and access management solution. These solutions work together to help keep corporate resources safe, while still providing access from any location where employees might be working. It’s easy for IT to manage apps such as Office 365 ProPlus, which provides all employees with immediate access to the latest desktop productivity capabilities, including AI and document collaboration features such as @mentions.
Migrating to Exchange Online also delivered a new level of security and compliance capabilities. “There are compliance capabilities in Exchange Online, such as Exchange Online Archiving, litigation hold, and eDiscovery, that deliver greater archiving and regulatory functionality than we had before,” says Riddell.
The IT team uses solutions like Microsoft Planner, Microsoft Project Online, and Microsoft Power Automate (formerly Microsoft Flow) to drive efficiency. “We have a large program to replace our billing systems, and we used Planner as a scrum board, moving tickets around,” says Anthony. “We use Power Automate to ensure that we kept to our timelines for about 80 deliverables that we had with commercial partners. We stipulated five days to review documents, five days to update them, and three days to approve. With Power Automate as a mechanism to track those deliverables, we kept to our tight timelines and made sure we hit our commercial outcomes, avoiding any financial penalties.”
Being recognized for success
Achieving the company’s digital strategy required a forward-thinking pivot in the role of IT, now actively partnering with the business. “Technology has improved, of course, but the real value has come from embracing new leadership and management techniques and implementing new ways of working such as Agile,” says Chris Ford, General Manager, Innovation and Technology at SA Power Networks. “My main focus is improving our people leadership, the development of capability, and team building.”
In early 2019, SA Power Networks received the Digital Utility of the Year Award for Energy. SA Power Networks’ use of Microsoft 365 to transform its work practices and equip employees for a digital world—through a more collaborative connected culture—played a role in these kudos. More importantly, the digital strategy at SA Power Networks recharges employees’ enthusiasm for their work and their company—and ultimately that’s good for business. “I wanted to show the team what a different way of working might look like,” concludes Ford. “I believe that together we have brought about a cultural transformation because people have found the confidence to try something different, to challenge one another and be challenged in return.”