The five minute CIO: Ian O’Flynn, Gas Networks Ireland

20 Feb 2015

Ian O'Flynn, head of IT at Gas Networks Ireland

“Delivering at speed while at the same time ensuring quality of delivery is always a challenge for IT,” said Ian O’Flynn, head of IT at Gas Networks Ireland, formerly Bord Gáis Networks.

O’Flynn joined Ervia, the parent company of Gas Networks Ireland, in early 2010 and has held a number of senior positions across the organisation before moving to his current role in January 2014.

Before joining Ervia, O’Flynn ran his own consultancy services business and prior to this spent 17 years working for Musgrave Group in a variety of IT roles in the fast-moving consumer goods sector. 

He holds a bachelor of science degree (computer science) and a master’s in business administration both from University College Cork.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology rollout across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

Technology is at the heart of all modern utilities and Gas Networks Ireland is no different. Our systems span Gas Networks Ireland’s entire operations, ranging from the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems, which control the management and distribution of natural gas throughout the country, to leading-edge enterprise applications which support the management of our asset base and enables us to schedule work to our field-based engineers using mobile technology. In addition, we also provide more typical IT systems to support the day-to-day operation of our business (eg, email, virtual desktop, financials and HR/payroll systems). 

We provide a comprehensive range of IT systems and capability, which represents a mix of legacy systems (fewer than 10 years old), to more recent large-scale enterprise solutions. In recent years we have leveraged cloud-based solutions to provide increased agility and scalability, which our business demands. 

Technology capability is critical in supporting strategic change. The main improvements technology brings us is increased work efficiency and assurance regarding the maintenance and operation of the natural gas network. As a commercial semi-state organisation we continually seek opportunities to reduce costs through the introduction of technology.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

We work closely with the group CIO in developing a common IT vision and strategy focused on driving innovation and value for money in relation to the implementation, support and maintenance of the IT systems across the Ervia organisation. We have recently established an Ervia shared services function and this centre of expertise is central to delivering infrastructure and application services to Gas Networks Ireland and across the organisation.

The Gas Networks Ireland IT strategy is completely aligned to our overall business strategy, namely, to ensure the ongoing safe operations of the 13,685km gas network, serving more than 670,000 natural gas customers, a continued focus on cost management so that we obtain maximum value from our investments, while seeking to grow our business through expansion of the network and converting more customers to natural gas, developing a market for natural gas as a transport fuel, and introducing renewable gas into the network.  

In support of these business objectives, our IT strategy includes delivering new technology (eg, CRM and digital) in support of our growth strategy, and the ongoing enhancement of our core asset management and the improvement of our mobile field-based solutions to support the ongoing maintenance and development of the gas network.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

We have a very extensive IT infrastructure footprint spread across three data centres, and we leverage a range of infrastructure platforms (including more than 450 virtual servers) to support core IT systems. In Gas Networks Ireland, we have approximately 600 internal IT customers and a further 300 external partners who all use our technology to provide field-based services and customer care/call centre capabilities.

To date, we have made some use of cloud technologies for particular solutions, but we expect that our use of cloud-based solutions will increase significantly in coming years in line with overall IT industry trends.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

Firstly, CIOs/heads of technology must secure appropriate budgets and subsequently demonstrate that investments are good value for money.  We must continually work at demonstrating how IT is contributing to overall business objectives and strategy, in addition to providing clear and demonstrable evidence of the business value of IT.

The pace of change within IT is very fast with the addition of new systems, new requirements to enhance and upgrade existing systems and the ongoing introduction of new technologies (and vendors) into our IT landscape on a regular basis. Thorough management and continuous review of IT spend is critical to ensure that cost duplication and inefficiencies are eliminated. Embracing virtual technologies and standardising the IT estate on common platforms and technologies can also assist in the management of cost.

A flexible resourcing model is also very important and we have followed a strategy of retaining core IT skills in-house (eg, architecture, business analysis, etc) that engage directly with our business functions, and we leverage external third parties for more specialist technical skills, and to also provide flexible capacity options. 

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

We inevitably have elements of complexity across our overall IT landscape, however, this is not untypical for a business of our type and scale. Over the past five to six years, we significantly enhanced our IT capabilities by introducing new IT enterprise applications and we have integrated these systems using middleware (replacing complex point-to-point interfaces). While some of these investments have added further IT complexity and introduced the requirement for new IT skills, the business processes that these investments support have been streamlined, simplified and standardised.

In recent years, we have invested significantly in server and desktop virtualisation and have benefitted from these technologies in terms of the ability to provision server and desktop infrastructure quickly, in addition to realising lower support and maintenance costs. This investment in virtual technologies has significantly simplified our infrastructure estate. 

Our plan is to continue to avoid introducing unnecessary IT complexity by standardising on common platforms and technologies, in addition to leveraging cloud-based solutions where appropriate.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We have a relatively small in-house IT team whose primary focus is managing IT engagement with our business customers and ensuring that business demand is translated into clear IT requirements and solutions. We work in partnership with our recently established IT Shared Services function to meet much of our ongoing IT project delivery needs in addition to the provision of common IT support services (eg, infrastructure, service management, application support and maintenance, etc). Third parties are used to provide specialist technical skills and knowledge, in addition to providing us with flexible capacity options that we can ramp up or down in line with demand.

My team also provides some non-IT business services and we have an in house business project management office (PMO), which supports the Gas Networks Business in the delivery of business change.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

As a member of the Gas Networks Ireland senior management team, approximately 40pc of my time is spent on business challenges and supporting the operation of our overall business and delivering on our business objectives. The remainder of my time is spent on the direct management of the Gas Networks Ireland IT function, including engagement with our IT functions across the organisation, in addition to working with key vendors and third-party suppliers. The amount of time that I need to spend on deep technical issues is not onerous, as I have a very strong IT team that directly manages these issues and escalates to me as required. However, I still enjoy rolling up the sleeves and getting stuck into a tricky technical issue on occasion.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

One of the main challenges for our business is to continue to grow the number of natural gas customers connected to the network and develop a market for natural gas as a transport fuel. We are also actively involved in developing a market for renewable biogas. IT will play an important role in support of this changing marketplace with new customers and new products. One example is the implementation of a new customer relationship management solution that our sales team will use when engaging with potential customers. In addition, we are also undertaking a review of our digital strategy to identify how we can best leverage digital technologies (mobile, web, social media, etc) to enhance how we engage with customers, external stakeholders and the general public.

IT Security is always a critical area of focus for us in Gas Networks Ireland, as we are responsible for safeguarding critical national infrastructure and assets.

Smart metering (which provides customers with more insight into their energy consumption, thereby enabling them to optimise their use of energy) is also an emerging trend in our industry. We are currently actively involved in the design of solutions for smart metering in conjunction with the Commission for Energy Regulation and ESB Networks with a target of introducing this capability circa 2020. 

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

We use a balanced scorecard across the Gas Networks business to measure business performance and the IT key performance indicators (KPIs)/metrics are an important input to this scorecard. Our summary IT KPIs are deliberately non-technical and measure IT’s performance in terms of business outcomes. We summarise all of our IT metrics into five business outcome areas:

  1. Quality & Productivity –  These metrics measure the quality of solutions being delivered by the IT function driven largely by change management, defect management and release/deployment management.
  2. Availability Impact – These metrics measure the impact of the unavailability of IT systems necessary to support the business.
  3. Efficiency & Cost – This metric measures the cost and efficiency of the IT unit, driven largely by financial management and management of costs.
  4. Process Metrics – This metric measures the effectiveness of IT processes and our responsiveness to meeting business requests/queries/problems. This is driven principally by our service management processes and how quickly we respond to and resolve issues raised by business users in line with IT service level agreements.
  5. Project Metrics – This metric measures the ability of IT to manage and deliver change and projects (both business and IT) from a scope, schedule and budget perspective. We continuously review our IT metrics to ensure that they remain business relevant so that they provide a useful tool for measuring the overall performance of IT, in addition to highlighting areas for improvement.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

Communicating with the business community in simple and straightforward terms is extremely important to ensuring that we have an informed business community aware of the reasons for and the implications of IT change. Sometimes there can be a tendency for the business community to view IT as operating in a complex, different world that has a different language!

Delivering at speed while at the same time ensuring quality of delivery is always a challenge for IT but one that we continue to target for improvement by reviewing and updating key IT processes to make them more effective, actively following through on lessons learned from previous deliveries and prioritising our project portfolio based on business demand.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?​

Enhancing our mobile workforce solutions is a key area of focus in 2015. We also are rolling out a new customer relationship management system to support our business growth strategy.  We continue to improve of some of our core enterprise systems (eg, asset management, GIS, business intelligence) to meet business and regulatory requirements and we plan to introduce new capabilities in the areas of digital and information and content management. We are currently consolidating our financials systems across the Ervia group in order to drive efficiencies and ensure consistency.

Another very significant initiative for 2015 is a project charged with updating our core gas transmission management system to implement a European Union directive to establish a standard set of European gas industry network codes in support of further opening up of the gas and electricity markets across the European Union.

Being part of a dynamic and accomplished management team here in Gas Networks Ireland and heading up the IT function is both a privilege and a challenge. Our core purpose is to ensure that more than 670,000 homes and businesses receive a safe, efficient and secure supply of natural gas, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The gas utility model demands high levels of IT capability and service; as our campaign goes: “It’s what we do.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years