The COVID-19 outbreak may well define this decade, maybe even this century. As of May 2020, it has taken over 250,000 lives across the world. And, according to certain estimates, the pandemic could reduce global economic growth by as much as 2.0% per month at the current rate. Global trade, too, could be savaged by as much as 32%, if the aftermath is severe.
But I am not here to tell you a gloom and doom story—quite the contrary. As a professional in the energy and utilities (E&U) space, let me start by sharing that COVID-19 presents us with the opportunity to transform many lives. A post-COVID scenario does not necessarily mean a bleak future. I am a firm believer in the resilience and ingenuity of humans and I am confident that we will sail through the current challenges and emerge stronger. This is what ‘being human’ is all about.
But many disagree. Leading consultants, soothsayers, and experts are busy predicting the fallout and full extent of the economic damage caused by the current crisis. They hope to define a ‘new normal’ that will be radically different (and possibly worse) than the past. Some even expect that the very idea of normalcy is a distant pipe dream and there will be no ‘normal’ anymore. I believe this pessimistic approach is incorrect and will, ultimately, affect their growth outcomes. This is particularly true for the E&U space.
Energy companies— that is, those involved in the generation, transmission, distribution, as well as retailers, along with their cousins in the water and gas sector—have always stayed away from the bombastic statements or glamorous marketing blitzes. Right from the days of mechanical meters to digital metres, from manned substations to unmanned space stations, and manual field surveys to UAVs, E&U companies have always followed the slow and steady, and silent, drumbeat of progress, without making a big splash. This is a testament to their no-nonsense attitude, and it’s especially impressive considering that the E&U industry has been among the first movers to embrace innovative new technologies into their operations. As a result of this proactive, progressive approach, each decade in the last 50–60 years has seen giant transformative leaps for the sector.
Moreover, as a provider of critical infrastructure, the industry has always been at the forefront of disaster preparedness and management. The current pandemic is another situation where the industry has adapted and evolved quickly. Concerns around social distancing have forced organizations to move to enterprise-wide remote working, but the E&U sector does not have that privilege. Firstly, their work is essential and is the lifeblood of economic systems, and for people working at home or in offices. Secondly, the nature of the sector demands that a large proportion of operational roles must be carried out on site. They cannot be done remotely. So, E&U companies have responded with characteristic imagination.
Working from Home to Working from Here (Anywhere)
Work from home (WFH) has almost become a cliché. Even children are now familiar with this term. They ‘learn from home’ by using video conferencing software to join classmates and teachers in an effort to simulate the classroom environment. For utilities, WFH has instead become ‘Work from Here,’ where ‘here’ refers to sites, substations, powerlines, pumping stations, or even transformer poles. Several organizations have taken the step of organizing living quarters for essential utility workers so they can perform their vital work while adhering to strict precautionary measures for their health and safety. While this has ensured the continuity of services, it has thrown up its own set of unique challenges.
Essential utility workers rely heavily on strong IT infrastructure and connectivity to perform their jobs. The value of the assets used in the sector, both fixed and movable, and the criticality of having them running with minimal downtime, means it is of paramount importance for systems to be functional and secure. So, we need to look at new ways to connect the dots and provide real, executable solutions to the woes of the workforce within these organizations. Here, I believe IT and automation can come to the rescue with holistic connected workplace offerings.
A Focus on IT and Cybersecurity for a Bright Future
The E&U sector, like most others, has pushed a lot of transformational initiatives, across most tracks, to the backburner as a result of the pandemic. Utility companies have diverted all their efforts toward ensuring their customers continue to receive services and support. This is imperative, as even the slightest oversight can cause a lapse in services, which can have a direct impact on the very reason the sector is so vital—to keep the lights on.
The IT infrastructure that underpins their works needs to be airtight and invulnerable. Even during a pandemic, malicious actors will be quick to exploit any vulnerability, so systems need to be fully secure against a wide variety of cyber attacks.
But unfortunately, it is still the case that across different regions of the world, the spending by E&U clients on cybersecurity and security, in general, is only a minimal proportion of their overall IT spend. The overwhelming majority of E&U companies still don’t have a strong, long-term cyber and IT security strategy—forget a dedicated team of cybersecurity professionals. This must change immediately.
With the growing onslaught of cyber-attacks and the constant threats on assets of national importance, these E&U companies have become more vulnerable than ever before. IT heads and CISOs in utility companies have realized this and been putting a lot of pressure on their teams to adopt stringent safety measures, to keep the lights on.
The question is, can IT organizations and systems integrators rise to the challenge in a post-COVID-19 world?
I would love to listen to your thoughts and inputs on the subject. I welcome all contributions and suggestions toward shaping a sustainable ecosystem.
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