Mike Carter, director at Ixis, explores why the energy sector faces a complex cocktail of digital management challenges – and how to meet them
In a world increasingly focused on energy efficiency and customer choice, digital platforms as a means of delivering information have never been more important in the energy sector.
There are a rich array of online tools used to dynamically communicate everything from energy usage in the home, to planned engineering works and potential disruption along the supply chain, to the relative costs of switching providers. In short, energy companies’ websites have become far, far more than just static online information sources – they are now the gateway to highly sophisticated digital portals and platforms.
Managing these platforms is not always easy. As ever, the front-end priority always has to be getting the right information to the right users at the right time, while back-end priorities include security, reliability and simplicity of management. Digital platforms should be an effective means of supporting the wider function of these companies, not an additional drain on resources – but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Here, we examine three of the major challenges faced by energy organisations deploying digital platforms – and how they can be met.
Challenge 1: Multiple moving parts
Mergers, acquisitions and rebrands are particularly prevalent in the global energy sector. Multiple companies have joined forces and parted ways over the years; the upshot being that the digital infrastructures supporting today’s iterations are often far more complicated and convoluted than you might expect – and subject to frequent changes.
In terms of website infrastructures, this can translate to difficulties in managing online content, an over-complication of web pages, or the need for specific development in certain areas. All this can cause frustration, and, ultimately, damage the organisation’s reputation in an already highly competitive marketplace.
All this means that energy companies should prioritise ease of content management when choosing the framework underpinning their website and associated digital platforms. The framework chosen needs to be highly flexible, so that content can be added and amended by a range of different users, and additional modules can be added to support the needs of expanding platforms. It’s also worth considering ease of functionality such as drag-and-drop image uploads, and content management from mobile devices.
Open source frameworks such as Drupal typically offer the most adaptability and flexibility, both from a web infrastructure point of view, but also owing to its strong multi-lingual capabilities. Anyone can develop plug-ins and extensions to the platform, and because of this, platforms like Drupal usually offer energy companies the most future-proofed means of supporting digital platforms too, even through mergers and acquisitions.
Challenge 2: Data management
Smart energy systems have been one of the most game-changing innovations in the sector over recent years, granting both consumers and enterprise organisations unparalleled insight into their energy usage, and putting even more onus on energy providers to manage billing processes accurately and efficiently. Such systems generate a wealth of data, which can often be accessed online as part of the energy provider’s core service – great for the customer’s visibility, not so great for the website back-end. Suddenly, whole new databases need to be integrated with existing websites – and those databases must be updated daily at the very least.
Integrating multiple data sets and third-party services into a single sign-on system is a key priority for many energy sector organisations, even those that are not consumer facing, and ensuring that key information can not only be managed effectively but also accessed effectively is crucial. Once again, this requires a content management system that can plug into multiple services, consolidating them onto a single platform.
Challenge 3: security and reliability
Digital platforms in the energy sector are important channels. After all, utilities companies are part of critical infrastructure. Ensuring a consistent and reliable source of energy to end users is vital to the smooth operation not just of individual households, but of huge organisations and, ultimately, the entire country. Data security is also a crucial consideration, particularly if customer data and financial information is linked to the digital platform.
Energy organisations, then, need to prioritise security and reliability throughout not just the development of their websites and associated digital platforms, but also their ongoing operation. The website hosting and support an organisation has in place is key to ensuring this – after all, if the website goes offline then it doesn’t matter how carefully constructed and streamlined it is.
A managed services approach is often the most appropriate way for organisations in the energy sector to maintain a secure and reliable online presence. It is vital that they choose a hosting provider able to handle the specific demands of the industry.
Keeping the lights on
Digital platforms already play a key role in the delivery of energy services across all aspects of the industry. As customers get savvier about tracking their energy usage at different times of the day or year, across different services and with different providers, the need for easy-to-use, intuitive and reliable online portals will only increase. Furthermore, strict data security standards and regulatory frameworks such as the EU GDPR are placing ever-increasing demands on the integrity of such platforms. Organisations in the energy sector must consider these core challenges in order to ensure effective platforms that can support their main business objectives – today and tomorrow.