Powering excellence in engineering

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

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Think of the world as a machine, and Downer technology and expertise help keep the engine running. From roads to rail, power networks, ports, skyscrapers and airstrips, they build and manage our core infrastructure, down to providing laundry services and even hospital catering. With a history stretching back 150 years, Downer’s grown to employ more than 52,000 people across New Zealand, Australia, Asia-Pacific, Southern Africa and South America.

As Downer grew, it picked up systems and processes that were inefficient, costly and siloed. To streamline its operations and empower its workers to create improvements in one seamless platform, Downer introduced the Microsoft Power Platform, setting up its own “Centre of Excellence” to ensure everyone had the right tools and guidelines to leverage the technology.

“Downer is a company of acquisitions,” explains Becky Blackshaw, the company’s General Manager of Data and Analytics. “We’ve acquired a lot of small, medium and large companies and tried to integrate those companies and systems together. Integration has not been without its difficulties. For example, at one point we calculated we had over 200 different legacy timesheets across the New Zealand business alone. This wasn’t just collecting hours worked for payroll, but fed into all kinds of different asset management processes.”

This is just an example of how Downer’s growing pains were holding it back, swelling to encompass more than 180 working environments with 14,000 workflows (many of them ‘orphaned’ or obsolete). If it wanted to keep growing for the next 150 years, things had to change.

Redesigning its platforms to fully integrate across the business and organise data efficiently was crucial to boosting productivity and cutting costs – but it went even deeper than that. As a company that designs and manages some of the world’s major structures, making sure its own internal infrastructure worked seamlessly was a matter of pride. It was also a way to open up its technology platform to everyone, enabling its people to share knowledge, innovate and improve the business.

Microsoft’s Power Platform, a customisable and easy to use low-code platform that connects to more than 350 systems like SAP and Salesforce, was the obvious way to bring everything together in one place and drive useful business insights from all that shared data. A few of the team were keen to try out what it could do for the business.

“We’re a Microsoft shop and members of our ICT team had been talking for some time about Power Platform and what you could do with it,” says Blackshaw. “One day we had someone come to us saying a safety app was desperately needed to manage health and safety risk. In a day or two, my team had created a form using Power Platform that calculates health and safety risks for electricity poles based on height, how many wires it has, the stress on the wires and so on. It just took off from there.”

But the real beauty of the Power Platform is how it can enable anyone – not just trained IT engineers – to create their own shared apps, tools and data-driven insights. Blackshaw and her crew were determined everyone across the business would be given the right skills and guidance so they could create a truly modern, efficient organisation where the ICT team was just there to support.

“At Downer, we’re a big company and there’s no way I can do all the work that’s required. Companies need to understand and nurture the citizen developer,” Blackshaw argues.

There was just one key challenge to overcome: when everyone is developing new systems and processes, how can you ensure they’re meeting the expected standards?

Building a Centre of Excellence

In early 2020, Downer partnered with Microsoft to establish a new Centre of Excellence, so it had the strongest possible framework for its new shared system built on the Power Platform.

A Centre of Excellence brings together subject experts equipped with a set of guidelines that ensure people can successfully use tools like Power Platform. As Blackshaw puts it: “The Centre of Excellence is responsible for the governance of data and a guide for citizen developers.”

Angelo Jebamony, Technology Solutions Professional at Microsoft New Zealand, describes it like this: “You can think of a Centre of Excellence as the guide rails around how people can follow best practice, such as not sharing data they shouldn’t, while nurturing innovation and enabling them to do their job better. We supported Downer’s C of E leaders with a tool kit full of assets to help their people build apps that improve efficiency and make data available across the business.”

With Downer Australia and New Zealand, Microsoft engaged in a series of hackathons to raise key issues and identify solutions and also linked their teams with organisations around the world who had Centres of Excellence so Downer could benefit from their advice and experience. A crack team of engineers from Microsoft also provided development support to the Downer crew, helping them explore the platform’s many possibilities.

When the Power Platform was ready to deploy across the business, one of the first tasks was sorting those timesheets.

With deployment partner Infosys, Downer created an app and procedure that will completely streamline the timesheet process. The Electronic Daily Job Record will be used by more than 5,000 engineers in the field to collect information about jobs and the time taken to complete them. Data is captured into the Power Platform Common Data Store and then passed onto Payroll. This provides valuable insights into trends and issues across the contracts and will save a lot of manual effort, time – and money.

Empowering an army of citizen developers

“When we first started the journey, I don’t think we quite appreciated what an amazing difference the Power Platform would make in terms of empowering the business to innovate and actually allowing people to do the things they previously required IT to do for them,” Blackshaw says.

“Now technology is an enabler within the organisation, not a block. We used to be tarred with saying no all the time. But now we can say ‘Yes, you can do this, and in fact I’m going to help you to build it’. It’s a great thing.”

The establishment of its Power Platform Centre of Excellence hasn’t just benefited Downer’s people. To help with the rollout, Microsoft trained IT students from the University of Auckland on the Power Platform in July 2020, so they were able to help Downer work through a backlog of forms that required replacement and gain work experience at the same time.

“Downer has a long history of working with cadets and interns. That’s really part of our culture, supporting students and people coming back to work, so we were really happy to have the students on board,” says Blackshaw. “We want to continue that programme in future, and take it a step further so students have a real end-to-end understanding of what business processes the forms they’re creating relate to and how they fit into the data we’re collecting.”

Beyond excellence – where to next for Downer?

Blackshaw is enthusiastic about where Power Platform will take the company next. Empowering a raft of citizen developers has also changed how Downer’s people use and think about technology, breaking down siloes and enabling knowledge and success to be shared across the business.

“Power Platform will be fundamental in our architecture going forward. With this great suite of tools, we can empower Downer people and that will transform the way the business innovates and the way my team works with the business.”

The data and technology teams are also seeing their roles grow into becoming facilitators and enablers of change across the entire organisation.

“We support on governance and the use of the tools, but it’s the people across the business who know the business, know what they need to do and can use these tools to build something that helps them make more money and reduce costs. I can see that the doors are really opening not just for us to be able to build a form quickly and easily, but to work with the business in a different way and that’s a really powerful thing from a tech perspective.”

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