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Knowledge management energizes green initiatives

This article appears in the issue July/August 2012, [Vol 21, Issue 7]
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Knowledge management can be "green" on many fronts, through converting paper-based processes and content to digital form, improving operational efficiencies and ensuring compliance with environmental regulations. Technologies that support IT such as data centers and cloud technologies contribute to reducing the carbon footprint. Video teleconferencing reduces the need for travel. KM software can be used to document and ensure that companies are conforming to internal or external socially responsible practices. Finally, KM can contribute to green industries, such as renewable energy.

EDP Renewables North America, formerly Horizon Wind Energy, develops and operates renewable energy generation facilities. The parent company, with facilities in Europe and South America, is the third largest wind energy company in the world. With 28 wind farms throughout the United States, EDP Renewables North America has significant requirements for managing and maintaining facilities that are part of the emerging industry of alternative energy.

The numerous processes associated with that maintenance and in many other departments across the enterprise led EDP Renewables North America to consider a software solution to support them. "Because we have field workers throughout the United States and a central team in Houston, we were looking for a structured way to collaborate," says Stephan Blasilli, corporate development manager at EDP Renewables North America. "We also wanted to be able to resolve issues with quantifiable facts, and to capture our extensive tacit knowledge, making it explicit and shareable."

Adaptive case management approach

Despite the company's focus on process, a traditional business process management (BPM) solution did not seem like the right fit. "Our issues vary considerably," Blasilli explains, "so a classic process model that tried to account for every alternative would quickly become overly complex. We opted for an adaptive case management approach because of its flexibility in allowing us to address varied issues, events and processes in a more customized way."

The nature of alternative energy also made it a good fit for case management. "Unlike mature industries for which issues have become more predictable," Blasilli says, "wind energy is an emerging technology, in which new solutions are always evolving." In addition, regulations for planning and constructing wind farms vary from state to state, so the process paths are diverse for that phase.

After a rigorous selection process that included an in-house demonstration project from each candidate vendor, EDP Renewables North America selected a case management solution from Appian, and implemented it in the performance management group. That group consists of a centralized management team in Houston and field workers at all the sites, and is responsible for maintenance at the wind farms. "One of our key issues was to prioritize work at the different sites," Blasilli says. "Everyone was aware of the top issues, but we wanted a robust decision support system that was based on very specific criteria and could track all our issues."

Starting with key elements

The system is called "Cobra," a shortened version of "collaboration," and is designed to be easy to use. "We spent a lot of time developing a system that would do a lot of the work automatically," Blasilli says. "For example, it will look up information from our databases rather than requiring the user to enter it."

In the trial version of the system, more information had been requested from the users, but the field workers found it cumbersome. "We took their comments to heart and zeroed in on a few key elements to start the case," Blasilli says. "Additional details can be added later." No formal training is required to learn how to use Cobra, just a short demonstration.

The prioritization scheme is based on a combination of technical and business factors designed to measure risk. "The algorithm is very objective," Blasilli explains. "It includes scope, cost, frequency, number of sites, number of turbines, worker time and other factors related to the issue being ranked." If a maintenance issue discovered at one site is discovered at other locations, the risk factor can be recalculated. "The system is very dynamic," Blasilli adds, "so we can update the risk factor in mid-process."

One of the most important goals in developing Cobra was to provide transparency in the maintenance operations of EDP Renewables North America. "Our workers wanted to be able to see who was working on an issue and how to request help," Blasilli says. "In addition, the system helps a great deal with knowledge retention, because the outcomes are stored in a central location that everyone can access." At any point in time, management can get an up-to-date overview of major issues, their status and who is working on them, a perspective that was not readily available prior to the implementation of Cobra.

Tracking sustainability

Many companies are now on board with "going green," for reasons ranging from compliance with environmental regulations to improved efficiency and better community relations. Air Products, an industrial gas and specialty chemical company, uses an environmental compliance tool from SAP, which calculates emissions and tracks compliance with environmental regulations. Previously, Air Products did not have an enterprisewide view of its environmental status because its tracking was done in many different locations. The company expects regulations will increase in the future, so it anticipates expanding use of the SAP environmental compliance tool.

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