Providing customers access to billing information via a Web self service would have been too costly in a mainframe environment at the City of Winnipeg Water and Waste Department, said Derek Osborne.
The project manager for an 18-month deployment ended in June 2009, Osborne said the 30-year-old mainframe system at the utilities organization was limiting in terms of the new business functions the City wanted to implement.
“Trying to provide a Web self service architecture on a mainframe was just driving us nuts,” said Osborne. “We couldn’t figure out how we were going to possibly do this.”
It was costly to bring new initiatives to fruition, but another concern was long-term sustainability for the mainframe environment, said Osborne.
“Where are we going to hire staff with mainframe skills? How are we going to keep the people we have with retirements coming up?” said Osborne.
There are about a 100 IT staff spread across the City’s 12 departments, not including corporate IT staff that run things like e-mail, and the wide area network. The Water and Waste department has about 15 IT staff, with four assigned to support the mainframe system.
With the motto “keep it simple and let’s be successful,” the deployment began in September 2007 after deciding to deploy Oracle’s Utilities Customer Care and Billing software, following a request for proposal process launched about eight months prior.
The new environment is now Sun server-based with systems built on Java and Cobol, skills easily found in the industry, said Osborne.
The same four IT people run the new set up now, except armed with a new set of skills following several months of training so they could then train end users and provide IT support to the department.
The City of Winnipeg has recently completed phase one, which was the “bare bones” stage to basically have systems go live. Phase two, scheduled to commence in January 2010, will see the implementation of what Osborne calls the “the risky parts of the project.”
That more risky phase includes Web self service, and other internal initiatives like replacing a convoluted rate structure in order to better charge customers for water usage. Currently, the rate structure is based on whether the property is residential or commercial, said Osborne.
“We want a finer breakdown on those parameters,” he said
While not impossible to do that on the previous legacy systems, Osborne said it would have cost “an awful lot of money.”
Osborne said the City will use built-in rate structure modeling in the Oracle Utilities Customer Care and Billing software, and will model sample rates against real data to “see how rates play out into real bills.”
Phase two will also see an initiative to include a land draining utility charge included on customer water bills, said Osborne.
Guerry Waters, vice-president of industry strategy with Oracle Utilities, said he’s observed utility companies increasingly introducing new technologies to support green initiatives and changing customer expectations.
In particular, putting in place more environmentally sensitive rates or energy conservation programs can require costly and extensive modifications to the existing IT environment, said Waters, “or do you (instead) change to a product that will accommodate all these needs?”
But given that many of those utility organizations, like the City of Winnipeg’s Water and Waste department, have systems put in place many years ago, Waters said there is naturally some hesitation toward undergoing a complete system replacement.
“Frankly, there’s a little bit of reluctance in the industry to do this because it is concerning that you have to go in and replace what you’ve had in place for quite a few years and that your workforce is adapted to,” said Waters.
Utility organizations must not let their confidence be derailed by horror stories of failed implementations, said Waters, emphasizing the success of the City of Winnipeg’s deployment.
It’s important to choose a software that can integrate with existing systems like those for accounting and field orders, said Waters.
“So choose a product with an open architecture,” he said.
While Osborne did initially fear user resentment toward the brand new system that would replace one that had become very familiar over the years, adoption turned out to be smoother than anticipated.
Part of the selling factor was replacing a manual paper-based process. “We had pinks, browns, yellows, blues, various colours of pieces of paper,” recalls Osborne.
“So you’d fill in two greens and a pink, and then you’d put them in this big bag. And the person who deals with the yellows would take all the yellows out, and they would implement that part of the process,” he said.
Handling a customer account in a paper-free environment has been reduced from a week to almost immediately, said Osborne. The sole delays are requests for approval but even those have been built into workflows, also available in Oracle Utilities Customer Care and Billing, said Osborne.
Moving forward, the City will continue to perform an annual five-year business strategy assessing and planning for its IT environment, said Osborne.