How to Produce Electric Results with Creative IT

Lawanda Parnell assembled a team of top talent to strategically communicate and launch a new IT system that is cutting costs and amplifying efficient customer service at Pedernales Electric Cooperative

Lawanda Parnell joined Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC) in 2012 as its chief information officer. Heading the IT department meant taking on the challenges of the member-owned, nonprofit utility company that serves more than 200,000 members in Texas Hill Country, a twenty-five county region of Central Texas. But Parnell rose to the occasion.

Lawanda Parnell, Pedernales Electric Cooperative
Lawanda Parnell, Pedernales Electric Cooperative

PEC had just launched its second release of SAP that September, but come November it was still quite rocky. “My first day on the job was a board meeting and trying smooth out their recent launch,” Parnell explains. “My first order of business was to try and stabilize the environment. I also had to look at IT and assess the talent that I had. I realized that I had a serious skill gap.”

Parnell reached out to people she knew. Since she had already worked with electric utility businesses, the CIO knew its specific needs and where to find good talent. She made a couple of strategic hires. “For me, finding the right talent was key to getting where we are today,” Parnell says. “I looked to fill in some gaps.”

The most strategic hires included enlisting a previous collaborator from San Antonio’s CPS Energy for a director of application development. Parnell also recruited a former colleague as the network and infrastructure architect.

Yet hiring talented individuals was only the first step in getting PEC’s IT on course. After some serious consideration and analysis, Parnell finally concluded that she must give up the mind-set of “fixing” SAP.

“We made a decision in late 2013 to go with a different solution,” she says.

That solution was iVue, an integrated software solution that is specifically designed and developed for utility companies and cooperatives. The process involved the collaboration of all departments across the cooperative.

“Not many companies have taken SAP out before,” Parnell says. ‘There was no recipe book on how to do it.”

So a cross-organizational team formed with people present for over a year from every part of the cooperative. “I needed all of them to be successful,” Parnell says. “That cross-pollination was very, very key to making this a successful project.”

Communication through the employee base included status updates to monitor problems and progress. “We communicated at regular steering committee meetings that consisted of stakeholders from across the cooperative,” Parnell explains. “We regularly reported out as to how much we had spent to date. The cost and status of the project was always in front of the executive team, employees, members, and the board of directors.”

In October 2015, the new system was launched. By November Parnell reported great news: “It’s been over a month now that we have reached service levels that have surpassed where we were when we were on SAP,” she says.

Service levels typically were in the 80 percent service level, which means 80 percent of the calls were answered within twenty seconds. But the implemented talent improvements led to a bump up to the 90 percent range.

“The productivity of our employees didn’t make incremental steps, it made exponential steps forward,” Parnell says.

The launch not only helped employees, but made member interactions with PEC more seamless, according to Parnell. A new mobile app, more online services, a new interactive phone system, and easier credit card payment options are just some of the improvements. Also, members can now see their hourly or daily electric usage and subsequently make decisions based on this information that can save them money.

This transformation also helped bring down organizational costs. Since the launch, PEC has had more than 40,000 members sign up for paperless billing. “That may not sound like a lot, but what that equates to in cost is over $250,000 of savings annually,” Parnell explains. “That saves us costs, which we can pass on to our members.”

The new IT system fits hand in hand with PEC’s 2015–2017 strategic plan, which includes reducing costs, maintaining customer satisfaction, and improving service, particularly in regard to reliability and consistency.

“The next phase, which we’ll launch next year, is around mapping and outage management,” Parnell says. “Those two things are core to a utility.” The CIO suggests that these initiatives will take the form of replacing the mapping solution, which shows all poles, transformers, and lines, as well as replacing the current outage management system, which controls information about who has no power during an outage or bad weather.

Parnell believes listening to people’s needs and hiring great talent is vital to successful IT solutions, and her belief results tangible benefits for PEC. “I will always tell people one of the keys to my success has been finding the right talent,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you. Everybody wins when you have a team of extremely talented people.”