Evolving CIS Market Offers Added Functionality, New Players

Imagine if you will: Accurate financial data. Reliable controls. Easy report generation...

by Steve Wenke

Imagine if you will: Accurate financial data. Reliable controls. Easy report generation and a user-friendly system. Sound like a fully functioning financial system? Add in the ability to quickly adjust or create new rates, add services and have a real-time 360 degree view into the business. Now what do you have? A modern Customer Information System.

When combined with a good project strategy, today’s CIS delivers results in an easy-to-use package. New systems coming onto the market are functionally loaded and come with the ability to interface and operate seamlessly with a myriad of ancillary systems that have been enhanced or acquired to satisfy the functional needs of a modern utility. Major new players are entering this growing market, and older players are merging and expanding. This process promises to accelerate the evolution of customer information systems available in the water market.

Expanded Functionality

Today’s CIS systems in conjunction with third party applications offer utilities a wide variety of functionality that empowers the users to perform their assigned job responsibilities with accurate and reliable information and offer additional customer service capabilities.

Let’s take the role of a Customer Service Representative (CSR). The systems today are much different than custom designed legacy applications that were character based or commonly referred to as green screen. The data today is presented within multiple screens but provide a greater amount of both current and historic detail with drilldown capabilities. One of the many benefits of this functionality allows a user to easily work with financial and consumption data online and then access the detail behind the billing record that includes previous bills, payment history and delinquencies. CSRs can even drilldown into the actual reads.

Additional capabilities include functionality called Workflows. Workflows help an end user navigate seamlessly through the different modes of the application. In some systems, a CSR performing a simple move in/out procedure will need to access up to eight different screens that can span across three different modules. Workflows tie each of the screens into a logical order allowing the CSR to capture more data in less time.

Maintaining and creating rates is another example of how modern systems allow end users easily to make the necessary changes -- through configuration, not programming.

Some off-the-shelf systems are designed to give a CSR a “360” view of a customer’s account. By allowing a utility to configure their own personal main screens, vendors are providing custom solutions with an un-customized code. These “configured” views may include: customer information, billing history, meter history, and a calendar representation of future activities that are color coded for quick reconciliation.

Another view of that same screen for a different department may be configured to display other task-specific information like payment history, delinquency timeline, service order history and other areas that the employee’s role may require. Some user interfaces can very easily be configured using Java applets that are as simple as dragging and dropping within a defined area.

To keep up with the functional demand and competitors development of new functionality, some vendors have opted to acquire other CIS vendors and integrate the systems or offer a suite of applications bundled together in order to satisfy the requirements of customers.

Mergers & Acquisitions

Today the acquisition and merger activity in the CIS market shows no signs of slowing. As this article was going to press, Harris Computer Systems surprised the market again with another acquisition, this time with the purchase of Vermont-based Systems and Software Inc. 2008 is going to be an exciting year. Here is what we expect:

Traditional tier one solution providers like Oracle and SAP are making concerted and quite successful efforts to become small- to mid-tier utility specialists.

Oracle has put together a team of utility experts that have experience working with and providing solutions for all sizes of utilities. Oracle appears to have the team it needs to make itself known as a choice provider for mid-size utilities. The team is made up of individuals that have worked for a variety of other CIS firms and brings to bear the intellectual capital that comes from such experience. The breadth of the solution and the speed at which Oracle is integrating these solutions makes one remiss if Oracle is not included in the evaluation process when considering replacing a CIS. In our opinion, “Team Oracle” is a company worth watching when it comes to the ability to deliver in the mid-size utility market.

Any time an 800 pound gorilla makes a decision to go after a market, one should take notice. SAP may be just such a gorilla. SAP made a business decision to go after the mid-size utility market, a decision that has resonated from SAP’s boardroom into the industry. SAP’s solution is one of the most flexible systems available today. However, this flexibility is both a benefit and a challenge to clients implementing the system. The SAP suite for utilities is broad and deep when it comes to functionality.

Utilities embarking on an SAP implementation project must consider the time it takes to design a system that supports one’s business processes. The clients who struggle with SAP are those who go blindly into a project without fully understanding their own business and its needs. In our opinion, for those utilities ready to examine themselves and look for ways to improve overall business effectiveness, SAP has a real solution to consider for increasing the value of the business.

Other vendors such as Harris Computer Systems, Systems and Software Inc. and Ventyx have been challenged by the assault that Oracle and SAP have made. However, they have not sat idly by while market share dwindles away.

Harris leadership has taken a unique approach to promoting a solution, or should I say solutions, to this market. At first glance one might say that Harris just can’t decide which pony to ride to the show: Cayenta, Northstar, Advanced Utility Systems (AUS) or the new addition to its stable, Systems and Software Inc. However, if one takes a few moments and listens to the executive message, he may find it quite compelling.

Leadership at Harris has taken the position that the client should be empowered to make the buying decision, not the vendor. Harris actively promotes, as of December 3, 2007, four separate systems that are supported by separate subsidiary companies. Each company qualifies and researches every opportunity to determine the solution fit. If there is a good fit, each company may proceed in an attempt to earn the client’s business. Then, with the Harris sales team’s help, it is up to the client to evaluate and understand its own business needs in order to choose the best solution.

Harris’ “free market” approach would make Adam Smith smile. Functionally, Harris’ solutions are robust and with Advanced Utility System’s move to .NET all seem technically sound. Harris companies are gaining new customers and in our opinion building a strong customer base. But of course in the spirit of a free market...you will have to take a look and get involved in the decision process yourself.

“If only there was an open source solution like Conversant that had a little more capital and was managed by a software solution provider,” you say? What was that? The Francisco Group has acquired Mincom; Mincom acquired Conversant. Mincom’s EAM is now integrated with Conversant’s Java-based, open source customer management solution. The Mincom Customer Watch is a company to keep your eye on.

Whether the utility industry at large is prepared to take advantage of open source architecture and the attributes that come along with it remains to be seen. Do they have a real CIS solution? Absolutely. Can they spread their message and gain support in the form of market innovators and thus market share within the utility market? Only time will tell. But in our opinion, if you don’t seriously consider the Mincom CIS solution, you may be missing out on the opportunity to invest in a very flexible system that will remain cost effective well into the future.

Finally, though of course not the only other vendor to have benefited from the acquisition trend, is Ventyx, formally known as Indus. If you look back in history, the application has grown by earlier acquisitions that include SCT, which provided the core CIS components. MDSI, a mobile data solution, in addition to Wishbone, which was integrated into the Indus application a few years earlier, brought together a comprehensive mobile workforce management suite. Now, with the work and asset management applications via the Indus asset suite offered alongside a functionally stable CIS, we believe this vendor offers utilities an organizational solution that can challenge the others in the market.

About the Author:

Steve Wenke is a Managing Partner with AAC Utility Partners. AAC Utility Partners, headquartered in Columbia, SC, is a utility IT selection, acquisition and project quality management firm.

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