by CIO New Zealand

CIO100 2018, #31-100: Cobus Nel, Transpower

Mar 28, 2018
Big DataBusiness IntelligenceCareers

‘‘IST in Transpower is more than just a provider of technology solutions,” says Cobus Nel, general manager, IST. “We are key enablers of change and support to achieving the strategic priorities of our business.

“Over the past two years, Transpower has moved to a flexible working environment, in line with the physical shift to a head office in Wellington, constructed with collaboration in mind.

“Technology is the key enabler to this environment being successful and in a technology environment like Transpower that is highly complex due to the operation of our national critical infrastructure systems – enabling innovative technologies to support the business required a new mindset and a new way of working,’’ says Nel.

“The objectives of the programme were to deliver reliable and intuitive solutions that allowed staff to work in a flexible environment and easily collaborate both in and out of our offices. We also needed to actively encourage a ‘flexible’ work culture”.

Transpower has also introduced an innovation programme – to find technology solutions to help solve five business challenges or issues.

“We see innovation as critically important to the future of our business,” says Nel.

Transpower established ‘innovation sprint’ teams under five key work streams – machine learning, live line alternatives, urban reconductoring, distributed system operator and long-term load forecasting.

Nel leads the ‘machine learning’ workstream alongside the General Manager for grid performance. “Machine learning is acknowledged by the business as a new capability with the potential to significantly change the way we operate, and we need to understand the potential it offers.”

He says the team is currently focusing on two key aspects of machine learning.

The first is knowledge discovery, and this will allow our employees to instantly access the information contained in Transpower’s standards and guidelines.

The second is condition assessment using visual analytics. Through the use of images and video streams, we can determine a consistent and accurate assessment of power grid asset condition, instead of relying on subjective assessments from ground crews”.

“Our business is already benefiting from machine learning technology. Earlier this year, our Grid teams started using Machine Learning techniques to better analyse our national grid maintenance data. By systematically clustering field observations into meaningful categories we are able to prioritise our work based on risk.

“Machine learning provides our grid teams with a more holistic view of our grid maintenance trends across the country and this enables us to identify common trends and relate condition back to potential failures.”

“I am a member of the Transpower executive team and attend general management team meetings every two weeks. I attend Transpower Board and sub-committee meetings regularly, where I provide input on matters of strategic importance relating to IST.”

Nel’s division actively promotes initiatives that foster a diverse talent pool within IT.

An example of this is Transpower’s involvement in New Zealand’s the ‘Shadow Tech’ programme, where female secondary students are invited to spend a day with their technology teams, and ask a range of questions.

“This event is designed to promote technology as a career of choice for female students, in order create a more diverse talent pool in the future,” he says.

For Nel, the role of IT has fundamentally changed throughout his career, with a subsequent impact on his philosophy and approach to leadership.

“When I started at Transpower, our division tried to stamp out ‘shadow IT’. This was a traditional IT model, which saw its role as a ‘service-provider; to the business by enabling technology solutions.

“Our role needed to change to keep up with our customers’ expectations and to develop an agile, innovative culture. We are now on a journey to become a ‘business-led’ IT function,” he says.

“We want to develop multi-disciplinary, cross-functional teams with seamless collaboration between us and our key business stakeholders.

Transpower Chief Executive Alison Andrew says Cobus Nel “has taken information technology as a function and turned it into a key component and enabler for change”.

“Under his leadership, we have been able to ‘future fit’ our organisation, and by using smart technology to enable our voice, video and conference needs, we are developing a high-performance culture, breaking down silos and reducing our travel costs and carbon footprint.”

“The changes he has lead with his team have placed Transpower in good stead for the future.”

Transpower is one of the organisations participating in the Return to IT programme. The company also supports ShadowTech Day, providing workplace mentors to female students studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects.