Last week, we published the first part of our conversation with Michael O’Donnell, national vice president of utilities at SAP. He walked us through the importance of sustainability in the utilities sector and gave us an overview of what’s happening in the industry. In this second part, we discuss the work SAP is doing to help its utilities customers meet current demands and hurdles.

ASUG: Every industry has been changed by COVID-19. What are some of the changes that you’re seeing in the utilities sector, not only from your perspective, but also from your customers’ perspectives?

Michael O’Donnell: There’s a lot to unpack with this one. Initially, the COVID-19 outbreak was a situation where we had to quickly pivot on a lot of the projects we were doing from a technology perspective. What I can tell you was there was a lot of success in quickly pivoting to remote work. Not surprising, right? We’re a technology company. I’ve been working remote with SAP since 2003. This was not a quantum leap for us to be able to quickly pivot. Now, the question was on the utility side. Did they have the ability to transition to remote projects and remote management?

We really passed with flying colors. When I say “we,” it was the utilities in conjunction with our great partners and the folks from SAP. It turned out well in that regard. We had four major CIS go-lives that accounted for 10% of the population in the United States. They all went live on time. But on the other side of this equation, when you start to think about how you manage the grid, the reality is that people need to be inside a plant to operate, run, and perform maintenance on that plant.

If you are putting up new transmission or distribution, it requires people being together in close proximity in the field. That side of the equation was extremely challenging for our customers and created a lot of questions on how to operate safely for their employees through the pandemic. There were a lot of protocols that we [JHI(1] put in place. Our customers and partners were very thoughtful about how they tried to protect their employees while still doing the minimum amount needed to make sure that the grid ran safely and effectively.

Many of those projects got slowed down, delayed, or completely put on hold, but things have now finally come out the other side. None of us know [JHI(2] exactly how things will play out, and I think with the Delta variant, it’s become clear that this is something that we’re all going to be living with for the foreseeable future. I do think it’s imperative that we figure out how to live and thrive in this environment. Is the current circumstance what we all want? Would we rather have the pandemic be over, COVID-19 go away, and just go back living life as we did before? Yes, of course. Is that our reality? No. But is it also our reality that we’re just going to stop and continue to operate in a mode where we can’t get everything done that we need to get done?

That’s the challenge that we have in front of us right now: how to live, operate, and thrive in this environment. To me, the answer to the question can’t be just continually delaying or stopping things until things get fully back to normal. It’s become clear that while we don’t fully understand everything about the virus and the variants, it’s also become clear that it’s not going away anytime soon. We all must get on the same page to figure out how we stay safe, protect each other, and figure out how to operate and thrive.

I know the word “thrive” sounds really odd when you think about the pandemic, but that is what we need to figure out how to do. It’s a great opportunity for us to think about the future of work and the pandemic has been a catalyst to drive us forward.

ASUG: It’s changed the very fabric of the way we interact with one another.

Michael O’Donnell: We have our event coming up in October and one of the big focus areas is around the changing nature of work. We have organizational psychologists that are on staff at SAP, and I’ve had several thoughtful conversations with them about the changes we’ve seen, the burnout that comes from remote work, the euphoria that people get when they’re able to see each other in person, the human connection that people need to have.

I do think as we move forward, it is going to be a balance of every type of work, trying to figure out the future of how we get things done. Remote work can be very effective for a lot of different tasks. But it’s not a panacea; it’s not the answer to every question. It had to be for a while when we were going through the highest levels of the pandemic, but I do think we also see that a lot of innovation still happens when you’re in person.

It’s about trying to figure out how to leverage technology in the most thoughtful ways possible. I saw something cool that we’re doing around virtual reality. Imagine doing this meeting, and instead of looking at the screen, we’re wearing Oculus goggles and we’re having a three-dimensional experience with each other.

Having this meeting via Teams is not going away, but I do think it’s a balance of all those things. I’ve been at several face-to-face meetings, and the level of focus, the enriched level of engaged conversation and interpersonal communications have been absolutely a blessing.

ASUG: How is SAP working to meet the challenges of the utilities industry with its solutions? How are you all working to help your customers?

Michael O’Donnell: Some solutions are broadly applicable across our entire customer base, not just utilities. We’ve had a lot of focus in our human capital area around how we help our customers think about how they approach and handle DEI. It’s an exciting area where a lot of innovation is taking place. I mentioned before our focus on sustainability management, and the role it plays in utilities.

There are two areas in the utilities space where I see a lot of focus. Customer information systems and customer engagement have been of focus for the last decade. We’ve done many projects and have had many utilities organizations evolve into our SAP customer information system and that’s been exciting. The evolution on the customer engagement side is and will continue to be in a continuous state of change. We have done a lot of work with our customers on how to best meet the changing needs and expectations around engagement.

The other area that has a lot of focus and change in utilities is enterprise asset management, work management, and field engagement. The future of work and sustainability are playing roles in how the utilities are thinking about the operational components of their business. Having systems in place that allow customers to manage that change is important. When we start to talk about the modernization of the grid and all those different projects, they require industrial-strength systems that are also flexible enough to adapt with ever-changing technologies. We are seeing a lot more activity in this area.

Lastly, I want to touch on the evolution of our core systems with SAP S/4HANA. It has been fascinating to work with our customers on that over the last five years or so. The biggest thing that people are trying to figure out is how to move to S/4 iteratively. The fact that we’re now more focused on digital and the digitization of the deployment has allowed us to be a lot more flexible in deploying solutions. It used to be that implementing your finance system, your HR system, your supply chain system, or all those systems together would be a large project. We’re now seeing much more focus on sprint deployments. The fact that solutions are in the cloud gives customers more agility in how they approach consuming the technology. I think everybody also is trying to drive toward simplification of what they’re deploying, and trying to get to best practices rather than trying to do what they’ve done for the last 30 years. There is a recognition that the way things have been done for the last 30 years may not still be the best way, and they could possibly leverage new technology and updated best practices to achieve the type of sustainability they are looking for from both a process and technology perspective.

Register for the first in-person ASUG conference in over a year and a half. SAP for Utilities will take place in San Diego Oct. 17–19. You can register here.