Avoiding downtime5 August 2004
Tim Taylor discusses how improved content management is central to ensuring improved continuity, an efficient operating environment and revenue streams across an organisation
THE HYDRO power industry is faced with an increasingly diverse range of regulatory, environmental and legislative demands, and failure to comply can lead to financial penalties and authorities shutting operations down until the necessary changes are made. As a result, there is a growing need to maintain greater control over the flow of information around organisations. Many companies have yet to realise the bigger picture and the need to address the underlying business and technology issues they face in improving engineering content management.
Maintaining a safe, efficient operation environment and avoiding stoppages is key for organisations that own and operate hydro power plants. Every organisation understands the commercial value of the power it generates, making the impact of non-compliance and downtime easier to quantify than ever before.
Companies must carry out their core business activities whilst keeping an eye on regulatory compliance, health and safety, environmental and other issues that need to be managed in the background. Effectively linking the documents to business processes to facilitate information movement and availability lies at the heart of a successful company.
The process of constructing and operating a hydro power dam follows a complex process of design – build – commission – operate – maintain, which is regularly repeated as major changes are made throughout the facility’s life. The process encompasses not just the management of the physical assets, but also less tangible elements like information and knowledge.
The engineering content managed throughout this process also has specific characteristics covering complex specifications including CAD drawings, calculations, geophysical data, financial projections, analysis results and data sheets. In an industry where documents are subject to strict change control, it is important that the correct version of each document is available at all times, especially where it may need to be reviewed and approved by external third parties and regulatory authorities.
When something goes wrong, the downtime that results can often be traced to a safety issue, emergency maintenance or non-compliance. But stoppages are often the result of disconnections between content and the business processes that use it. Ultimately, stoppages are linked to information incidents in which documents are inaccurate, out-of-date or just not available.
Information incidents can manifest themselves in a number of ways but one of the areas impacting on the hydro power industry is regulatory compliance. Something as seemingly insignificant as the failure to change a valve within a specified lead time could lead to non-compliance, or an environmental incident that would involve financial penalties or the plant being shut down whilst further checks are carried out.
Monitoring activities in relation to compliance is critical to avoiding unscheduled downtime and ensuring the smooth operation of a facility, but it is also a complex process involving many groups within an organisation. Businesses must ensure that the right documents and content are available to work from and that the processes that give this content context are in place to manage them effectively.
The monitoring controls involved in maintaining regulatory compliance are incredibly stringent and this has increased the demand for real-time access to shared information on demand.
The hydro power industry is subject to increasing regulations, especially with regards to environmental legislation. The consequences of non-compliance can be severe and if there is doubt over the processes followed in the construction phase, or if there are safety or environmental issues, the commissioning and operation of a facility can be delayed or halted. This can compromise years of work and potentially cost the company vast amounts in lost revenue.
Owners need to demonstrably maintain control of information throughout an asset’s whole lifecycle. This is a key element in the management of risk, and it is particularly important when information from one phase of an asset’s life is transferred to the next.
Not only this, but a failure to communicate information effectively throughout the organisation can also lead to duplication of information, increased volumes of re-work, loss of information between lifecycle phases and commercial disputes or claims, all of which have a negative impact on a company's profitability.
Business issues alone are significant hurdles when it comes to increasing the efficiency of information flows. But they are often compounded by underlying technology problems that can lead to the creation of information incidents in which the required content is not available when necessary.
Information incidents are the result of a disconnection between engineering content and business processes that use the content. For many organisations, the root of the problem lies in the failure to adequately share, manage and control information throughout departments and across the business.
A typical example in the hydro power industry is scheduled maintenance; something that could easily result in unnecessary stoppages when the sharing of documents and process management are overlooked.
Consider a hypothetical situation: following routine maintenance on a valve at a pumping station, the valve later fails and the entire facility is shut down. In fact, the unit had failed previously at another station and, consequently, a technical update on procedures had been forwarded to the engineering departments at each individual pumping station.
This information, however, was not communicated to those carrying out the maintenance work and resulted in the unnecessary stoppage at the first station.
This scenario could have easily been avoided if the organisation had managed its engineering content and drawings within the context of its enterprise-wide business processes. The technical update would automatically have been communicated electronically to all the relevant people (including the engineer who carried out the maintenance), ensuring that everyone would have been aware of the issue and that the correct procedure would have been carried out.
This example highlights a core component of effective content management. The ability to share and communicate information effectively must lie at the heart of all business processes, meaning that the IT department plays a significant role in managing and facilitating the flow of that information.
As businesses expand, it is not uncommon for them to develop an IT infrastructure in which they run multiple systems to fulfil similar tasks. On a departmental level, the need for specific platforms and applications still exist (i.e. SAP in a finance department). In engineering environments, this is compounded by the fact that engineering divisions tend to invest in ‘departmental’ solutions, often heavily customised to meet their own specific requirements. This is highlighted by the proliferation of multiple content management platforms within organisations.
Each of these solutions and platforms carries a support and maintenance overhead and adds to the creation of ‘silos’ of information completely disconnected from the rest of the business, reducing its ability to control risk and compromising its efficiency.
This is now being recognised throughout the power industry in general, and has prompted many organisations to look at how they can overcome the problem of compromised information flow. As a result, there is an increased trend toward the adoption of enterprise content management (ECM) platform standardisation to better match departmental requirements within the context of the whole enterprise.
Standardisation on a single ECM platform brings many advantages in addition to unified enterprise business processes and effectively stored and shared content. These benefits include lower infrastructure and maintenance costs, reduced training costs and better internal support.
From recent market feedback, McLaren has found that as many as 65% of IT departments are currently involved in some sort of ECM platform standardisation. Clearly this trend is one that cannot be ignored, as it now impacts on the previously unassailable complex unstructured content associated with engineering.
Being able to share large quantities of information, implement and operate business processes across departments, branches, substations and even extend this to incorporate the work and activities of third party suppliers or customers, can tighten up business activities and provide a vital competitive advantage.
The Growing Role of Content Applications
Linking the functionality of the standardised platform into business processes can be achieved in a couple of ways. The traditional approach has been to determine requirements and use integrators or consultants to customise the platform. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is both costly and time consuming. There can be lengthy delays between identifying the need and actually customising the platform to enable the business to benefit, and frequently the needs change during the process.
Another disadvantage of using consultants to customise the platform is that organisations risk losing control over the ownership of the content management system. All too frequently, the use of consultants means that companies can be held to ransom towards the end of an existing contract. Often they can be charged for the return of their own information that is held on a system, because only the supplier knows how to get access to it.
If they are not careful, businesses can easily find themselves drawn into a perpetual cycle of customisation from which they will be unlikely to ever really benefit fully.
The alternative is to adopt an approach based around the use of configurable out-of-the-box content applications. The advantage over customisation is that engineering content applications come with high levels of industry best practice as standard and this significantly reduces the volume of adjustments required.
This approach mirrors developments in the database market some 10-15yr ago. The evolution of the structured data market has gone from simple flat-file databases, to relational databases like Oracle or DB2, to customised transactional systems, and finally off-the-shelf transactional systems like SAP, Siebel and PeopleSoft. Each stage in the evolution offered the customer more and more value and functionality and accentuated a trend towards more and more ‘productisation’ of applications.
Recently within the ECM space, both Documentum’s ‘Designed for Documentum’ and FileNet’s ‘P8 Ready’ programme have been launched to support and encourage the growth of content applications, indicating a major shift in the approach of the industry and their appreciation of an evolving market.
These new applications are supported by content management platforms and control the processes through which content is used, managed and stored. Updates in line with changing business requirements can be made within a fraction of the time it would take to achieve through customisation, enabling companies to undertake future process change much faster.
One major benefit of using engineering content applications is that they let organisations automate and control the business processes that use this key content across the enterprise. This is particularly beneficial in a regulated environment, where many of the requirements can be met through remedial work.
In the construction and operation of dams and other hydro facilities, it is essential that certain tasks are performed, and linking the engineering content to business processes enables automated lifecycles and notifications to be implemented.
This means that content is processed correctly and consistently to ensure the right inputs and actions are collected and carried out at the right point. It also performs the dual purpose of creating an audit trail to highlight where – in the event that something should go wrong – a problem occurred, what happened at that stage in the process, who was involved and what actions were taken, allowing an organisation to control and mitigate its exposure to commercial risk.
To return to the earlier example of valve maintenance, it is easy to see how an audit trail would have assisted the update. By having in place a demonstrable record of the process, the organisation could prove when the procedure was updated, when relevant individuals were alerted and who ultimately was responsible for the maintenance being carried out incorrectly. This information could then be used to ensure that the incident is never repeated.
Such functionality, when combined with a standardised ECM platform through which information sharing is made more efficient, can have a considerable impact upon the level of unscheduled downtime. Following downtime the organisation is also much better placed to rapidly re-configure the platform’s operations in relation to the change in business processes necessitated by the incident.
By using a single ECM platform across the enterprise there are several ways in which the management of the infrastructure can be improved: it increases operational efficiency, reduces the chances of unscheduled stoppages and improves ongoing maintenance. By automating the rules and processes to ensure that certain tasks are carried out at certain times with the appropriate content, there is a greater chance that potential issues will be identified before they become a problem.
The ability to manage engineering content within the context of business rules and processes with out-of-the-box content applications allows the user to benefit from the industry best practice encapsulated in the applications, improved support, new developments and easy migration to new versions of both the applications and ECM platform without the need to re-customise.
In the event that an incident should occur, the links into other systems alongside audit trails mean that it can be resolved with greater efficiency, thus reducing the impact of interruptions.
The cost of deploying content applications and supporting and training on a single ECM platform is significantly lower than that of alternative methods.
Tim Taylor is chief business development officer of McLaren Software
For further information, please visit: www.mclarensoftware.com