by Jennifer O'Brien

Sharing the stories of the CIO50: #15 Chris Ford, SA Power Networks

Feb 21, 2018
Technology Industry

Immersed in a technology-ladened environment, SA Power Networks’ CIO Chris Ford openly admits his biggest lesson learned in his career revolves around people – and he’s proud of it.

“If you give people trust and support and inspire them to believe in themselves, then they will achieve far more than you expect and seldom let you down,” he explains.

“Over the last three years, I have been on a massive learning curve of personal discovery that has challenged all of my learning and beliefs. As I have embraced one of the latest leadership theories VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity] and driven the adoption of Agile, I have had to learn to let go and trust in my people – the rewards have been amazing.”

He says his biggest personal learning was the importance of “visible, consistent and abundant leadership” – always.

“You have to be seen to be living the values and principles you are promoting. As a simple example, it was pointed out to me that the management team were saying all theses great things, yet still holding their meetings in the same way. So we now have our weekly management meetings as stand ups around our Kanban board in the open plan area and we encourage anyone who is interested to attend.”

Another proud achievement is the recent employee engagement survey, he says.

“In 2015, a year after I had joined SA Power Networks, the organisation undertook an employee engagement survey. This was repeated in 2017 and the results have just been announced. It is notoriously hard to get much movement in employee engagement and generally, even with significant focus, you would only see the results improving by a few percentage points.

“According to the representative from the survey company the results for the CIO department were ‘quite amazing’, they showed an improvement in employee engagement from 69 per cent in 2015 to 91 per cent in 2017, a 22 per cent increase. In addition, there was a question in the survey about IT’s performance which also showed a huge 13 per cent improvement.”

New ways of working

So what’s been happening over the last 12 months at SA Power Networks? Ford highlights a stack of pivotal projects.

Ford says IT is integral to the success and performance of SA Power Networks, and is the key enabler to all of the business improvement and efficiency programs. It is also essential in driving new ways of working and changing the culture of the organisation.

“One of our drivers is to provide technology that improves the efficiency of the organisation. In particular, by providing tools that enable our mobile workers to have access to everything they need to perform their tasks wherever they are.”

He says the organisation has been working with SAP in a bid to deliver a number of mobile apps that have provided significant value to the organisation.

“One of many examples is the SAP Work Manager App that allows our field inspectors to record all of the necessary information, including taking photos then upload straight into SAP from the field. We have estimated that this saves us over 2400 hours a year, plus it collects significantly more data points with less rework or checking required. SAP International was so impressed with this that it has recently recorded a video showcasing SA Power Networks that will be shown at their conferences and user groups.”

He says the company has also rolled out an app called ‘My Workday’ that allows the field crews to enter their timesheets on their IPhone and it automatically calculates all of the very complicated allowances and special payments to ensure they receive the right pay.

“There were many challenges with this project, in particular, around the culture of the workforce. Many of the field workers were not big users of technology and although we have provided them with IPhones for many years, we discovered that they only really used them for making calls. We had a great team that worked with the field crews to develop their trust in the technology and demonstrate the value to them personally of using the app. Now the app is widely used and is saving time, improving accuracy of pay and reducing the opportunity for errors in time recording.”

Demonstrating innovation

Ford says innovative thinking – and select projects – are a pivotal part of the organisation going forward. His goal: to fundamentally change the culture of IT to focus on the customer, implement new and innovative ways of working and develop existing employees into a very strong team. “For me, the key to innovation is experimentation without the fear of failure. I have set up a budget specifically for innovation and created the role of ‘Innovation Manager’ to drive our initiatives.

“The IT team have continued to drive innovation in SA Power Networks. In true Agile fashion, we have been experimenting in a number of key areas. We have run a Machine Learning Trial that looked into the possibility of automating a number of back office finance transactions and I am a member of SAP’s Machine Learning Sounding Board”

He says the organisation has also run a number of predictive analytics pilots in conjunction with the local universities which included looking at predicting where SA Power Networks needs to cut trees to ensure the power lines are safe from falling trees. It is also embarking on a project to predict the likely outages when a storm is approaching so SA Power can be more proactive in how it restores the power.

Additionally, he says the team has had the most success in the field of virtual and augmented reality.

“Working with our colleagues in engineering we have developed a number of great initiatives that have been adopted by the business. We have been using drones and lidar [light detection and ranging] to build virtual and augmented reality models of our substations. This has improved the quality or our designs, reduced cost and improved the safety of the build phase of the project,” he says.

“The key to sustainable value from innovation, new ideas and concepts is getting people to buy in to changing what and how they do something. To address this, we set up a dedicated room specifically for virtual reality and augmented reality. We encourage staff from across the organisation to come and try the new technologies and think about how they could change the way they work.”

He says the organisation has also embarked on a wearables experiment – initially in the pilot phase– but an area of future opportunity.

“The idea was that we could improve the health and safety of field workers, especially in arduous situations, by monitoring their physical well being. As you can imagine our high voltage line workers work in extreme environments. Unfortunately, we were unable to progress the experiment beyond pilot because we were unable to find a supplier of fireproof monitoring vests. However, this in itself was an important statement, in that when you are experimenting in new areas with new technologies, it will not always be a success first time – and that’s alright.”

Demonstrating leadership

Since Ford joined SA Power Networks in 2014, according to his peers, he has not only turned around the performance of IT but also made a significant contribution to the leadership team.

“I am always looking to learn and personally grow. I embarked on a mission to really embrace VUCA (one of the latest leadership theories) and drive the adoption of an agile mindset across the CIO function, not just Agile project delivery. With the help of an external coach, an excellent management team and the support of a great boss I have experimented with different approaches to leadership, delivery and structures.”

He employed a ‘change manager’ as a direct report with the specific remit to challenge Ford and disrupt IT.

“In application development and support we threw away the old ideas of structure and hierarchy and created a series of ‘Bubbles’. Essentially, self organising teams with cross functional skills. In service delivery we threw out the traditional structures and teams based on competencies and technical skills. We renamed the function IT customer experience and reorganised it based on multidisciplinary teams focused on what our organisation was telling us they want,” Ford says.

He said he’s proud if the fact he changed things up at the organisation – creating a more mindful work environment.

“I set out on a mission to inspire everyone in the CIO function to want to learn and develop, to create a real ‘learning organisation’. To achieve this I set an objective to lift the capability of every single member of the CIO function. I encourage reading and personal development and organised a series of training courses run by internal people who were passionate about a particular subject, such as meditation, mindfulness and innovative thinking.