Utility Industry Change is an Opportunity to Create Value

According to industry analysts, utility companies face ongoing, dramatic change and must find sustainable solutions and improve productivity to succeed. These goals are compounded by serious challenges like workforce turnover, aging infrastructure, and a heightened regulatory focus on safety. Plus, as a part of this drive to streamline, utilities must grapple with these challenges in an increasingly flattened organization. In order to be successful, leadership must shake free from old world views, take advantage of the changing landscape, and look for opportunity to create value in every corner of the organization.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) survey of utility companies reports “many [utility companies] are unsure how to best handle the dramatic evolution within their organizations.” Nevertheless, evolution is inevitable, and forcing functions often bring about worthwhile change. It has been our experience that this change—specifically the flattened organization—has put the frontlines closer to the boardroom. It’s forced a breakdown of some of the barriers that have plagued top-down companies. Those who are ready to capitalize upon the change can produce dividends in the form of sustainability, productivity, and profitability that the industry is striving towards.

For example, at a recent meeting, a public safety manager at one investor-owned utility touted that her public safety program receives C-level support. And rightfully so—she took advantage of the altered corporate landscape and put valuable supports in place to elevate her program. By recognizing and acting upon improved visibility and interactions within her flattened organization, she was able to more effectively span boundaries, form relationships, and build coalitions that strengthened her program.

As a safety manager, she made it a point to recast what safety means to claims, operations, corporate communications, and ultimately the company’s bottom line. She explained how she established champions throughout the organization and shaped her program in a manner that cross-pollinated departmental goals and key performance indicators. She described a more orderly and effective approach towards the production, sharing, and utilization of metrics that benefit departments, the enterprise, and other stakeholders.

We’re experiencing this strategic shift across the industry—especially when it comes to public safety outreach. The days of simply complying with regulations and checking the box is no longer adequate. What’s more, silo mentality and turf defense has given way to cross-functional work, collaboration, and a more holistic corporate view. There’s a realization that comprehensive, integrated public safety programs can benefit the whole organization. Accordingly, many utility companies now view their public safety programs as more than just an obligation, but instead as a competitive advantage.

For this very reason, many utility companies are moving towards best-in-class public safety programs. These higher profile programs certainly pay off when it comes to public perception, but the real value is much more economic. Well-designed programs are sustainable and contribute to the shareholder value that companies require. The good corporate governance inherent in such efforts helps to create long-term value. This is because best-in-class public safety programs help manage risk, measure success, strengthen the balance sheet, and increase efficiencies through continuous improvement.

But best-in-class programs don’t just happen. They start with good leadership—clearly depicted in the previous anecdote of the “proud safety manager.” According to the PwC study, “successful utility companies are focusing on effective leadership,” and these leaders “are leveraging performance measurements.” The study reports that leaders must have the skills to
• maintain efficiencies and ensure reliability and safety;
• accomplish more with resources that are spread thin as they [utilities] look to streamline costs but continue to launch new initiatives;
• effectively use social media and traditional communications to interact with the public and regulatory agencies to garner support for rate increases and address safety issues;
• build transparency into management and operations.

The same utility representatives who report the need for leaders with these qualities also “acknowledged the lack of recognition [in their organizations] that change is big, unstoppable, and something that they have difficulty addressing.” If the industry is going to effectively tackle change, someone must step up to the plate. Strong, visionary leadership is crucial.

Leaders can come from any level of an organization and become the catalyst for change. Increasingly we’ve seen safety managers step into this role. It’s understandable because safety can be a rallying point for many organizations, particularly around major incidents. What’s more, many safety managers understand the true value of the work that they perform. Our own recent survey of utility safety professionals shows that 92 percent of those surveyed believe that their companies can gain a strategic advantage by going beyond compliance with their public safety programs.

In its own words, the utility industry is facing “big, unstoppable change.” While such change leaves the industry vulnerable to threats, it also opens new opportunities. In order to capitalize, the industry requires strong, visionary leadership. Old legacy thinking must give way to new strategic decision-making. Programs like public safety outreach can produce a strategic advantage especially when integrated into the larger business plan—benefiting multiple departments, regulatory bodies, and stakeholders. The result? The PwC study’s conclusion says it best, “a holistic approach to company strategy, structure, process, and people, can result in the creation of an overall service delivery model and organizational design that better serves customers, regulators, and investors.”

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