Untangling an Unplanned Legacy

By Bob Violino  |  Posted 2006-01-14 Print this article Print

The electricity distributor restored service in September 2005 to its Mississippi customers within 12 days, instead of 28. A system to find critical documents offered an assist.

Southern Co., one of the largest electricity generators in the U.S., has 272 coal, oil, gas and hydro generating units at 68 power plants. It provides electricity to more than 4 million customers in Alabama, Georgia and parts of Mississippi and Florida.

Southern's operating companies, divisions and departments generate and share millions of documents, which range from engineering drawings of plant assets such as boilers to personnel data. Which is where content management enters the picture. In general, the software enables employees at organizations to create, store, revise and access information from the desktop as well as from enterprise applications such as supply chain and customer relationship management.

Until late 2002, Southern's power generating operations used a hodgepodge of custom applications and legacy systems to store and access digital content, as well as old-fashioned filing cabinets to store paper documents.

Digital information resided in any number of places—mainframe applications, homegrown databases and on local area networks. With no central location in which to store content, Southern had no control over versions of documents and drawings, and no way to easily identify the current version of a given document or keep track of who had access to which information. As an example, in the energy business, standards procedures change frequently. Under Southern's former decentralized catch-as-catch-can approach, an engineer had no sure way of knowing if the procedures being deployed were current or outdated.

Other content, particularly older information, existed solely on paper. That not only kept storage costs high, but made it difficult and time consuming for people to locate items. When technicians needed to replace an element at a power plant—a boiler, for example—they needed to locate documentation on the boiler itself as well as on all related systems. That often involved physically looking for paperwork, because much of the older content hadn't been converted to digital form.

"When we'd bring in contractors to help with upgrades or outages, they didn't know where to look" for information, says Godfrey, the technical consultant at Southern. Engineers and maintenance workers on average had spent two hours per day looking for content such as drawings, according to Godfrey. The cost in terms of productivity was high; employees lost time that could have been spent on initiatives such as plant upgrades or repairs. Even more important, the difficulty of locating content often hampered efforts to restore power after outages.

In November 2002, Southern deployed an enterprise content management platform from Documentum (since acquired by EMC Corp.) across its 71 fossil-fuel and hydro plants, as well as its generation and energy-marketing business units, to support more than 7,000 geographically dispersed employees and contractors. Vendor manuals, engineering drawings and maintenance data were among the 2 million documents moved to the Documentum system for central storage.

A goal—and result—of the implementation: speed up the amount of time it takes for Southern employees to locate information. How much more efficiently? The average search time for engineering drawings has improved from two hours per day to less than 10 minutes, according to Godfrey. The success rate for finding the right content on the first try increased from 50% in 2002 to 90% by 2005.

Story Guide:
I.T., Not Just Elbow Grease, Help Utility's Recovery

  • Untangling an Unplanned Legacy
  • Making Related Content Connect
  • Applying Tradition of Reliability to I.T.
  • Southern Co. Base Case

    Next page: Making Related Content Connect

  • <12345>

    Submit a Comment

    Loading Comments...
    eWeek eWeek

    Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.