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Collaborative approach to crucial CIS acquisition builds future capabilities and captures immediate benefits at Saint Paul Regional Water Services

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Information technology has been a vital component of Saint Paul Regional Water Services' (SPRWS) considerable efforts to improve efficiencies and competitiveness in its operations. The Minnesota utility forged a five-year strategic information technology plan that resulted in 47 recommendations. The vast majority of these are either being implemented or have already been put in place. One of the last recommendations involved replacing the existing billing system.

SPRWS had reached a fundamental decision point on the future of the billing system. There were multiple options: Continue using the existing system (How long? At what cost?), upgrade the system, or acquire a vendor-provided CIS. This decision was critical decision for several reasons:

The CIS is the “cash register” for SPRWS and five surrounding suburbs. Saint Paul's billings alone exceed 32 million annually.

The CIS touches every customer. Any replacement project had to be fail-safe. Therefore, it was vital to ensure that the utility had a sound understanding of the appropriate level of resources required, including management focus, staff dedication, and financial commitment.

A new CIS is likely to be used for at least 15 years, according to recent research (AwwaRF Effective Practices to Select, Acquire, and Implement a Utility CIS, 2005, Melanie Rettie et al.).

The water industry has a history of difficult or failed CIS implementation projects, with only 35 percent of utilities categorizing their CIS projects as successful.

SPRWS staff had a lack of consensus regarding the best direction – should they enhance the current system or make a major transition to a vendor provided solution?

Bottom line, the decision facing SPRWS was no trivial matter. There were strong feelings both for acquiring a new vendor-provided CIS and extending the life of the current system. The key was ensuring that decision-makers and stakeholders understood the alternatives, implications, and reasons behind the choice. Based on this requirement, the project approach involved an iterative series of sessions in which data was collected, analysis performed, and initial conclusions were developed, discussed, and revised. The goal was to progressively develop a unified direction. Once the decision was made, their desire was to develop clear next steps that served the best interests of the SPRWS customers – and their customers.

Case studies were collected and educational sessions conducted to explore industry-leading practices, technology trends, and vendor directions. Once the decision was made to go with a vendor package, clear requirements needed to be developed and a clear, fair selection process defined. Given that the CIS to be acquired will have a life span of 15+ years, it was important to look into the future for new requirements that will emerge over the life of the selected package.

This paper explores how the utility's approach ensured that utility staff was truly engaged in the decision-making process. As a result, a number of quick wins were identified and captured. New lines of communication have developed, with a fresh understanding of business needs and issues across organizational units. Staff skills have developed, with new “stars” emerging from the ranks. Staff has very strong buy-in to the selected solution.

Most important, the utility's leadership has confidence in the selected direction and a strong foundation has been built, upon which future project phases can successfully be carried out.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2008-01-01

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