by Stephanie McDonald

The business of energy: AEMO CIO, Chris Ford

Aug 09, 20126 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Chris Ford has only been CIO of Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) since February this year, but already he has a clear plan of where he would like to see the IT division head.

AEMO has various operational, development and planning functions in the gas and electricity market. It commenced operations on 1 July 2009, superseding a range of organisations including the National Electricity Market Management Company Limited (NEMMCO), which was the wholesale market and power system operator for the Australian national electricity market. It operates alongside the Australian Energy Regulator (AER).

AEMO has two core operational roles: Power system operator and market operator. These system and market operations are largely integrated. It operates the interconnected eastern and southern Australian power system from two control centres in different states. Both centres operate around the clock, and are equipped with identical communication and information technology systems. It is this operation which ensures a supply of electricity to domestic and industrial customers and retailers. The bidding on supply and perceived demand means the price is adjusted on a continual basis.

The organisation also works with the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC). Ford’s focus is for business to drive IT, instead of IT driving the business; primarily wearing the ‘businessperson’ hat, as opposed to the ‘IT guru’ hat. Focusing on the business side of IT means being able to step out of the operational side and into a more strategic role, something which Ford acknowledges can be difficult for many CIOs.

“IT and CIOs in particular often have the opportunity to really work broadly across the organisation and understand everything that the organisation is doing. That enables us to see opportunities and add value in ways that other functions don’t have,” he says. “So I think there are real opportunities for CIOs to use that knowledge to actually start being seen as someone that can behave or can operate in a strategic way.”

The key to success, he believes, is implementing a good, solid team to carry out operational duties, which allows the CIO to take on a more strategic role.

The road to success

It hasn’t always been a smooth road to success for Ford. One of the biggest challenges he has faced is ensuring people are able to clearly set out what they require from their IT systems in order to successfully deliver it. This requires impeccable communications skills to get people to work effectively together, “and really drive out the opportunities and value from the use of IT”.

“You need to understand technology. You need to be able to clearly articulate that, but my belief is the key role for CIOs is to be able to communicate effectively, especially with your colleagues at the C-level,” he says. By developing good relationships with colleagues, particularly at the executive level, CIOs can also gain more support for IT; it can open up the dialogue for executives to understand the value of IT to their organisation, according to Ford.

“Certainly I’ve been in positions where people and staff don’t realise that or don’t understand that and it is important to really help your colleagues see the value of the investments that they’re making as an organisation in IT. In particular, try and articulate the business benefits associated with investment in IT.”

Ford is analysing how AEMO can leverage new innovations, such as the Cloud. He is also going to further establish the company’s existing platforms and services.

“With Cloud we need to be very clear about what the business requirements are and I think there are good opportunities for Cloud services in certain fields and certainly in the more business corporate type solutions,” he says.

AEMO is currently employing private Cloud in “small uses” in some of its corporate services. Ford says private Cloud, instead of a public Cloud, is being pursued to ensure the right security model fits with AEMO and its objectives.

Big Data is also under consideration by Ford. As an energy organisation operating in the consumer market, AEMO uses a vast amount of data. One of the key opportunities for Ford, he says, is to turn that data into usable information.

“So [looking at] how do we get value from the investments that we’ve got and the data that we’ve got, and really enable both internally and the market the opportunities to really understand the data that we collect and get value from that,” he says.

The road ahead

Security is one of Ford’s main issues to manage as CIO. This means ensuring proper protection measures are implemented for the company, but at the same time not putting too many restrictions in place that stifle innovation and flexibility.

“So understanding what you need to do to protect the organisation, but still provide people with the opportunity to try new things and be flexible in the way they work, in particular,” he says.

“I think the other thing… is how we get the value from the Cloud services and maximise those opportunities while still allowing us to have security and the control and management of the systems that enable us to deliver the services to the organisation.

“I think security will continue to be an ongoing challenge for us. As we develop, the hackers are developing [just] as quickly, so that will be something that continues to challenge us moving forward, I believe.”

Ford says AEMO is also currently looking at restructuring the organisation and pinpointing how IT can add further value to the company. What will be guiding these decisions is Ford’s philosophy towards IT — never accept the status quo, always look for new opportunities and challenge not just the IT department, but also the rest of the business to discover ways of doing things better.

“The opportunities for IT are always growing and developing and I think the real challenge for CIOs is to harness those opportunities and actually ensure that the business continues to develop and move forward,” he says.

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