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March 2, 2016updated 05 Sep 2016 7:58am

SGN mobile apps: How a gas company balanced safety with innovation

C-level briefing: Andrew Quail, Head of IT at SGN, explains how the energy supplier is transforming its mobile app delivery.

By Alexander Sword

Successful innovation always involves taking a risk, but what level of risk is acceptable in industries where the stakes are the highest possible?

Gas companies are subject to the same commercial pressures as any other businesses, and hence are required to innovate to improve their business. On top of this, though, they have responsibility for the safety of millions of customers that they serve. A gas leak that is not properly and promptly dealt with could have fatal consequences.

It is with this dilemma that SGN, the natural and green gas supplier, had to deal with as it looked to advance its mobile infrastructure. The company serves 5.8 million homes and businesses across Scotland and the south of England, operating over 74,000 km of gas mains and services.

Andrew Quail, Director of IT at SGN, explains that the company has relied on critical business processes being automated for well over a decade.

As much of its workforce consists of mobile engineers, the decision to have a ‘mobility’ policy was a no-brainer.

For a long time, SGN had been using Syclo, which recently became SAP’s mobile platform after it was acquired by them several years ago.

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The energy company still uses SAP for its core, stable and emergency response services, but found that this didn’t suit their changing needs: while solid, reliable and highly available it was unsuitable for quickly standing up flexible, agile and lower cost applications.

"We’ve had the mobile platform performing some of our critical business processes, which has primarily been around our emergency gas escape response," says Quail. "This requires us to be with the customer within under an hour of a report of a smell of gas. That’s our prime mobile service that is obviously very highly automated."

The company did extensive research to look at how to improve their mobile capability, including a number of proof-of-concepts.

"We found that one solution doesn’t fit all of our needs, so we’ve got one mobile platform that we use for geospatial and map-based services. We have the legacy platform which is highly integrated in our estate and as such is quite inflexible."

The third key area for SGN’s mobile strategy was the ability to stand up new services quickly at low cost without risking impacting or degrading its core and safety-critical services.

SGN’s Accelerated Delivery Team is now using Kony’s cloud-based mobile backend as a service solution Kony MobileFabric to rapidly develop mobile apps, secure interaction with backend services and simplify the app maintenance process.

MobileFabric allows developers to use any open mobile developer framework and tool.

"A good example of that is that we’re rolling out a customer satisfaction app, which adds significant value not only to employees but also to our customers as well," says Quail. "That absolutely empowers them to be connected to our customers."

Crucially, the supplier has been able to create the service in a number of weeks, Quail says. This would have taken months on the legacy platform and would have come at a considerable expense.

Above all, it would have run the risk of degrading the critical services, Quail says.

SGN expects that the platform will provide greater efficiencies due to the seamless integration with its existing enterprise systems.

This balance of innovation and safety is a tricky one to achieve. The energy sector is of course a highly regulated one, and Quail credits the energy sector regulator Ofgem with creating a good climate that allows both safety and innovation.

"The regulatory regime Ofgem has in place is recognised as leading in the world.

"What that’s doing is putting a focus on our business not only to do what we’ve always done and deliver gas safely, but enables us to balance that by looking at innovative ways of working and the incentive element is really driving for better customer service and experience."

In this case, keeping customers safe is key; Quail notes that "the safety culture of our organisation is always going to be core and will never diminish."

There are of course other industries that will need to protect safety as well as pursue innovation. For example, the emergency services in the UK are set to move their mobile communications from terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) to EE’s 4G services.

The Tetra provider Airwave has raised objections that 4G will not be capable of carrying the traffic, and since the stakes are high here, it will be important for decision-makers to find the same balance that SGN did.

Above all, though, the general lesson seems to be that it is possible to innovate without compromising an enterprise’s core business.


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