As the energy industry becomes increasingly focused on decarbonisation, digital transformation is vital to many companies’ current and future relevance. One firm that stands at the forefront of this industry wide shift is Swiss multinational BKW. “Digital transformation is the answer, it’s not a hindrance,” says Thomas Zinniker, CIO at the energy and infrastructure company. Zinniker believes that decarbonisation is the market’s biggest driver of digital transformation, and that the diversification this has inspired at BKW necessitates an IT overhaul to cater to its broader structure and wealth of new employees and data sets. The company has undergone a significant expansion over the past five years which has seen its employee headcount more than double to reach over 7,000 through acquisitions, as well as growth of the main business. Adoption of digital solutions has not only facilitated this growth but also enabled the firm to maintain a decentralised approach to its operations through networking rather than integration. “We do not intend to integrate the acquired companies completely, so our approach is to network the acquired businesses and benefit from the various unique skills each company brings,” says Zinniker. “Our credo is to be as decentralised as possible, and only centralise when absolutely necessary.”
Within the core business, Zinniker has overseen the adoption of a host of modern methodologies to enable the firm to focus on the essentials and significantly mitigate the length of its planning cycles. “We're using a Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to manage the whole portfolio of projects, we’re using Scrum as an agile implementation methodology, and we're using Design Thinking methodology to define and develop new products and business models,” Zinniker explains. This gears BKW’s workforce to a level of flexibility that enables it to make the most of the speed afforded by newly-implemented technologies. “In the past, the planning cycle at BKW was in decades, and we have now restructured to plan in quarters. Today what really matters is what is happening next year.”
This forward-thinking laying of foundations is augmented with a potent array of partnerships, driving success across each of BKW’s business units. “Partnerships are essential for our success, because speed is key today,” Zinniker notes. “Special knowhow is essential. We have a number of partners for specific areas, like Siemens for smart metering and Microsoft on the Cloud side.” BKW has also partnered with the Business Branch of UPC Switzerland (UPC Business), the country’s largest cable operator, to power its connectivity with speed, security and reliability. “UPC Business is our partner for the whole network and interconnectivity. It is vital for the newly-acquired businesses to be connected to our network rapidly, so we are using software defined virtual networks to enable this.” It is also planned that BKW’s partnership with UPC Business will provide the essential capacity to manage its Europe-wide wind park network with efficiency, as well as facilitating asset integration into the network. This integration will provide BKW with sharper insights into productivity and maintenance necessities. “The connectivity of those wind parks is absolutely essential, as you can’t have your own guys under each windmill monitoring and maintaining them all the time,” Zinniker comments. In the wind business, its WindLog tool incorporates AI to monitor wind turbine components, such as oil temperature and gear box integrity.
Another core partner for BKW’s digital strategy is Microsoft, which drives the firm’s Cloud capabilities, powering its core IT functions through the Office 365 platform and providing a customer relationship management (CRM) platform in Microsoft Dynamics. “Our use of Cloud technology is very broad, and we are planning to offload further processes from our data centre into the Cloud wherever it's useful,” says Zinniker. When selecting Siemens for its smart metering system, Zinniker notes one of the core requirements for the smart metre management system would need to be based on Cloud technology for flexibility, agility and scalability. “The smart metre produces roughly 40,000 times the amount of data over a traditional metre,” Zinniker says, highlighting the importance of the system being built using technology capable of managing vast data volumes. Big Data is a historic component of BKW’s operations, with a digital twin of the whole grid having been in operation for the past 10 years. This enables BKW to simulate loads and scenarios to enable data-driven management of the system to optimise maintenance and expansion of the grid under various scenarios in the near term and to strategic level up to 25 years. With its expansion over the past decade, BKW has access to a wealth of new data sets through its acquired engineering companies. “By combining that data, we have the capability to develop completely new products to help our customers to make better decisions, or support them with deciding where to build new streets, new grids, or whatever infrastructure is necessary,” Zinniker says.
Change management throughout the expansion has illustrated the faith BKW has in its employees, placing new tools in their hands and asking how best they can augment their roles with the new technologies. “We support our staff with adapting to and embracing new technologies,” Zinniker reflects. “The Office 365 rollout throughout the organisation is one example where we actually said: ‘We're not going to tell you how you have to work. Here is a toolbox. Just use it. Play around with it. We will help you to understand it, but you have to find your own way of working.’ Through this method, people could see for themselves that the tool would help them to manage new challenges in the market.” In action, the wider internal benefits of the technologies have become clear. “It's the new way of working,” Zinniker adds, discussing the capacity for remote work afforded by disruptive solutions. “Employees have much more freedom. Work wherever you are, whenever you like, having access to all the data to work on topics whenever it’s feasible.” For end-users, there are myriad boons to their relationships with BKW services and solutions, and Zinniker mentions an intriguing example of the positive impact of big data to firefighter decision-making. “With mobile tools we have the capability to provide any kind of information they need on the spot,” says. “We deliver vital information for firefighters when they are tackling a fire in a building, because electric installations can be quite dangerous for firefighters,” he says. “They can see the data immediately on a tablet, look at what's installed there, where to find the nearest point where they can switch off the electricity for the street, or for the block.”
Zinniker says that BKW’s adoption of emergent technologies shows no signs of slowing. As it continues to invest in renewable energy solutions, BKW is also increasing its potency in the efficient building sector. “We are developing a large business for building solutions and installations, as around 50% of Europe’s energy is consumed within buildings, says Zinniker. “We are helping companies and consumers to be much more efficient within their buildings, and therefore save energy. In the engineering business, we have a number of engineers specialised in energy efficiency who will drive uptake of new technologies that manage energy far more sustainably.” Zinniker stresses that digital transformation is not seen as a hindrance or burden at BKW, but that it is instead the answer to many questions asked of the energy and infrastructure sector by the modern world. “I think our sector was perceived 10 years ago as a dull, slow industry,” he says. “It has now become one of the most interesting through the adoption of technology, the changes of the markets, and new players coming in. It's extremely interesting to be here.”