by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #13: Cobus Nel, Transpower

Mar 28, 2019
Artificial IntelligenceBig DataBusiness Continuity

“Our organisation has evolved in leaps and bounds over the last two years as we find ourselves in the midst of a global energy transformation,” says Cobus Nel, General Manager, Information Services and Technology at Transpower.

He says programmes they have implemented through the past year put the information services and technology team in a prime position to support Transpower in its goal to realise a more secure and sustainable energy future.

As Nel explains, Transpower is a unique organisation. It’s the largest non-telecommunications network in New Zealand, with a critical infrastructure network consisting of nearly 12,000 kms of transmission lines stretching from Kaikohe, through the Cook Strait, to Bluff.

“We’re always looking for ways to operate safer, faster, and more efficiently, and this underpins everything we do,” he says.

Speed, security and innovation are key themes his teams are working on in upcoming months.

“We have evolved our mobility and access to information and resources, moved to more cloud-based solutions, while still offering security and peace of mind that we’re not putting the business at risk,” says Nel.

“Information management has been a key part of ensuring that we’re not only delivering mobility, but also ease of use,” he adds. “If we want to be able to improve operational efficiency, we need to be able to easily find content that supports our operations.”

Transpower is working on several projects that harness AI and related technologies.

One of these was bringing in cognitive search using IBM Watson. The Watson platform uses natural language to provide results, not only from a traditional document perspective, but also from a concept perspective.

“It started as a traditional project but over time, became more of a true agile project, with a focus on the product and incrementally progressing it,” says Nel.

Meet Wall-E and Evie

Transpower’s IST team is also involved in the use of robots, Wall-E and Evie, to provide real-time situational awareness of their remote sites.

The robots are semi-autonomous and can navigate around an outdoor substation to points of interest, allowing engineers or operators to respond in a safe way to faults or undertake inspections. The project is in partnership with Massey University.

Transpower also participated in the first ‘beyond line of sight’ drone flight in New Zealand.

“This was a truly collaborative piece of work,” says Nel.

“We partnered with the wider industry to get this piece of work ‘off the ground’, pun intended,” he says.

As a result, Transpower is now able to do inspections and get closer to transmissions and towers – including those on remote or dangerous terrains.

These projects reflect the company’s shift in managing innovation projects.

“We have moved towards working or partnering with smaller technology startups to bring that outside innovative mindset in-house,” he says.

“We want to leverage their knowledge and capability to the maximum without constraining them with our processes.”

He says Transpower has started using emerging procurement processes like the Competitive Dialogue process, where the organisation works far more closely with a vendor to get a good outcome at a reasonable cost.

Cybersecurity platform

While cybersecurity is a focus for all businesses, it’s a particular risk for the energy sector, he explains.

“As an organisation Transpower is a visible target for a cyberattack, and we need to be vigilant to ensure we’re keeping the New Zealand power grid safe,” he says.

He says the team has risen to the challenge, developing a leading approach to cybersecurity risk reporting.

“We’re in a position where we understand our cybersecurity risks and have a clearer view on each dollar spent towards controls. We believe we have set the benchmark for how all organisations should carry out planning, investment and management of their security environment.”

Nel talks about Transpower’s shift towards more collaborative working, and how he sets an example to the wider team by working at different desks on different floors. “This gives me the opportunity to engage with my wider team in a non-hierarchical way,” he says.

“This ‘flatter’ structure has helped open the lines of communication and collaboration and gives me a deeper insight into the work that’s being done every day. Having more direct access means less bottlenecks for my team, and we can work in a nimble way.”

As part of being nimble, Transpower and the IST team are also moving towards methodologies like DevOps and Agile.

“While these are common buzzwords for a lot of organisations, we’re working to embed them in a way that best suits Transpower,” says Nel.

“This means encouraging the teams to not assume there’s only one way of doing things,” he points out.

“Different approaches work for different projects, and I trust my people to adopt the approach that’s fit for purpose for their piece of work. If a project calls for a waterfall approach, I’m not going to discourage that because it isn’t the ‘current’ practice.”

Nel says Transpower is working with Creative HQ to help the organisation grow its in-house capability in the innovation space.

“We are embedding innovation across Transpower and encourage cross-organisational collaboration to solve “some tricky business problems”.

In everything he does, Nel says he looks to important strategic priorities: evolve our services to meet customers’ needs; play an active role in enabling New Zealand’s energy future; and sustain Transpower’s social licence to operate.

The last two involve matching the organisation’s infrastructure to need over time, and accelerate organisational effectiveness.

“Transpower’s IST team can see how their activities and deliverables map to these priorities, which gives a sense of purpose to everything we do,” says Nel.

“At the end of the day, our people are our greatest innovation resource, and as a leader I’m committed to encouraging and empowering my people to be in a space where they’re doing their best work every day.”

From ‘standoffish’ to customer-centric

Nel says most of his career has been in information and communications technology. But until his current role at Transpower, he had always considered himself as an IT customer.

And as such, he always felt as though IT was somewhat “standoffish”.

“They would give you a set of tools and a level of access, but it was a one-size-fits-all type of arrangement, with very little consideration of customers as individuals with individual needs,” he says.

No surprises then, he says, that this relationship led to the rise of ‘shadow IT’, where people could find software or services online that fit their needs, and they could bypass IT altogether.

“If you couldn’t do it at work, you did it at home,” he says.

“Cybersecurity and privacy weren’t really a consideration, which resulted in the job getting done but putting the business at risk.”

Thus, when he became CIO at Transpower, Nel says he tried to build a service that he would have wanted as a customer. And, if IT can’t provide the service, they will ensure that everybody understood why.

“I’ve found that most people have the best interest of the organisation at heart and if they understand the reasons for decisions, they are happy to suffer the inconvenience for the greater good.”

His team offers fit for purpose tools, business-led, that balances the business risk with the IT risks.

“I want us to be viewed as customer-centric while keeping our systems safe.”

He considers the Community Policing programmes as a model for this approach.

“We must enforce the law for the good of all, but we need to work with the community to understand the best ways to do that,” he says.

“It’s important to have a strong relationship with the business to keep everyone moving forward.

“Given that Transpower’s workforce is evolving to being IT experts in their own right, it’s becoming even more important to be an enabler rather than a hindrance going forward.”