When is discretion the better part of valour?

Posted by Leadent Solutions on May 15, 2013

Last week, the UK’s DECC (Department for Energy & Climate Change) announced that it would be delaying the roll out of the UK’s Smart Meter Programme by a year. Does this mean the programme is in trouble, or has common sense prevailed?

The Smart Meter Programme is undeniably huge by any measure, looking to upgrade the UK’s metering infrastructure to smart technologies in just a few years. The potential benefits are still actively debated. And whilst there’s no doubt that the physical deployment of the smart meters themselves is relatively straightforward, there has been a growing recognition that the business and technology infrastructures required to support them – to capture and process data, to allow Suppliers and Meter Operators to interact horizontally and vertically, and to manage the interactions with a variety of third parties – is a huge undertaking. The DECC has therefore decided, in consultation with the industry, that it’s better to take the time and get it right.And whilst I’m usually one of the first to argue that, very often, small and fast is the better way to deliver technology based change. This time I have to agree that a more moderate pace for a large programme is the right decision. Despite the probable cost increases that this will drive, the delay will nevertheless significantly reduce the risk associated with the programme, allowing full testing of the new technologies and processes required to be demonstrated to be operating correctly across multiple organisations, mitigating the risks to consumer and industry confidence.

These risks, if realised, would likely undermine the whole programme politically and technically. They’d destroy confidence in the new technologies, and they’d create significant problems for the industry as it attempted to correct issues whilst running live.

But these challenges are faced in many environments – not just in energy.

There are some general points to consider when implementing any programme:

  • Whilst it is generally better to keep programme size small – it helps people keep a hold on things – there are genuinely times when the project can’t realistically be cut any smaller. If attempts to phase it just keep giving rise to further risks and issues, you’re probably at the sensible minimum size deployment.
  • Is there a high degree of technical complexity? Are new systems processing new data across multiple systems and parties? If yes, then you need time to test the interactions thoroughly. The risks that arise from rushed testing drive issues in change and adoption. You’re invariably better fixing this in the test phase, not once the system is live. Avoid the false economies, however tempting.
  • Is the political map complex? Are you managing across many stakeholders, where, at best, there is room for misunderstanding of the requirements and solutions, or, at worst, there is a risk of obfuscation and political gameplay where objectives do not fully align? Allow time to get it all sorted before you go public.
  • How extensive or sophisticated are your users? When you deploy, how many opportunities are there for them to trip over new systems? Will they embrace it or reject it? And how many of those users can you directly manage? If you need to explain a complex system in simple ways, to ensure acceptance rather than pushback, you need time to test things out and to communicate effectively.

The Smart Meters Programme is a big programme. It involves multiple players, implementing multiple systems, to both internal and external users, and the perceived benefits remain a hot topic.

But getting it right is important. Exercising discretion and level headedness at this time seems to me the right thing to do.

So, while I’ll always applaud great ambition, let’s go for a great implementation too. Be sure you really do know what’s going to happen when you plug that shiny new system in.