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National Grid's CIDO reimagines operating models, IT strategy

In this Q&A, National Grid's CIDO Adriana Karaboutis gives a glimpse inside how her IT team operates and talks about finding a balance between legacy IT and emerging tech.

Adriana Karaboutis is forging her own path to digitizing National Grid.

As group chief information and digital officer (CIDO) at the London-based electricity and gas utility company based in London, Karaboutis has been deliberate in developing a strategy for investing in cutting-edge technologies, re-envisioning how a utility company can interact with and service its customers, and rethinking how IT can work with the business to deliver on outcomes. All for an industry that is both pursing change and dealing with change being foisted on it.

"In utility, now we're prosumers and consumers," said Karaboutis, who joined National Grid as the CIDO in 2017. "You have multiple sources where you used to have machine-harvested energy, you now have weather-harvested energy and you're at weather's disposal for wind and solar versus coal and the fossil fuels."

In this Q&A, Karaboutis, an IT veteran with more than 25 years of experience and a panelist at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, talks about her role as a CIDO, her strategy for digitizing National Grid, her biggest technology challenge and the role of the head of IT for internal sustainability initiatives.

You serve as the chief information and digital officer, which seems like an intentional blending of two previously separated roles. How does being a CIDO differ from being a traditional chief of IT?

Adriana Karaboutis, group chief information and digital officer, National GridAdriana Karaboutis

Adriana Karaboutis: I hired into that role at National Grid, and it was one of the reasons I was so interested in the role because of the recognition by the board and the chief executive that digitalizing the company and IT goes hand in hand.

The way I've defined digital at National Grid is three key areas: Leveraging frontier technologies; reimagining the future and operating models, customer engagement, et cetera; [and] determining a different way of delivering, which for me has been agile ways of working and a product operating model.

I've been so specific on what digitization means because people confuse it -- some people think it's digital branding and marketing, believe it or not. Others think it's about customer engagement and enablement. And it's all of that for us. But when you give it three key prongs, then all of a sudden, it comes to life and it crystalizes.

How is your team structured?

Karaboutis: I have a chief product officer who ensures the way we're delivering systems or capabilities is through a product operating model. We have product owners in the business that own specific outcomes -- not outputs, outcomes. I've got CIDOs for each of our jurisdictions, or what you would think about as divisional CIOs -- they're divisional CIDOs. They're accountable for anything that is waterfall or traditional information processing, as well as the digitization of their piece of the company -- of their division -- working hand in hand with the business. And here's the big difference; you can't differentiate the technology folks from the business folks reimagining the future. They are part and parcel of these product operating teams that are delivering the outcomes we need.

You've mentioned both waterfall and agile methodologies or strategies. How do you blend the two?

Karaboutis: I've given my team a very tall challenge. In each division, I've asked the team, the leaders, to recognize when they're going to go waterfall, when they're going to go digital -- or to understand when they know the outcome versus if they need to do minimum viable products and alpha, beta releases because they're developing the product as they're going along -- and then engage with the business on digital methodologies.

What I'm saying now is good CIDOs need to understand when it's traditional automation versus a disruptive change.
Adriana KaraboutisGroup CIDO, National Grid

We used to say that good IT people need to understand the business. What I'm saying now is good CIDOs need to understand when it's traditional automation versus a disruptive change.

What are frontier technologies at National Grid?

Karaboutis: The other big thing that's changed is we think about platforms, whether it is technology platforms or product platforms. And we operate on platforms so that we can move quickly. So, frontier technologies, what I just said, is a piece of it.

Also artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud, 5G, edge computing -- that's huge for us because if you think about all of the assets in the field and where you are and those phoning home, it takes massive amounts of compute to understand where [the fattest] of your grid is. I could also throw blockchain in there, and the outcome of a lot of these things, which is digital twins, so we can predict our demand planning models for energy through digital twins that act as a proxy for what's going on in the real grid.

How has AI, specifically, changed your business?

Karaboutis: AI plays a huge role internally in our efficiency for running our company, for the customer preferences and being able to anticipate those, and for the assets that operate our grid -- for predictive versus prescriptive.

Switching gears, how has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your company, and what changes will persist going forward?

Karaboutis: Like other companies, we took the victory lap. We stood everyone up very quickly. Microsoft 365 helped from a tools perspective. We rolled out Microsoft Teams and we got the company going extremely well. Our cNPS [colleague net promoter score] doubled through what we did and how we set people up -- recognizing the different personas like call desks and help desks, and things like that. Those things are persisting now.

How has managing a remote team been for you?

Karaboutis: The secret sauce for me is clarity on outcomes as well as valuing and rewarding outcomes -- not activity [or] meetings and output. Being very specific about what we're trying to achieve, frequent communication -- and that doesn't mean frequent meetings -- around OKRs or objectives and key results, which we adopted through our product operating model. I think we have been clear and are more transparent now than ever before as a result of COVID.

What's your biggest technical challenge, and are you addressing it?

Karaboutis: My biggest technical challenge is the install base of legacy technology, and I would say that most big corporates have this challenge. What we've done is we haven't taken an approach that we have to upgrade everything, we have to get it on contemporary platforms.

We've said we need to cope with it, stay within our technical debt for cybersecurity, but harvest APIs -- we use Snowflake to pull data out, put it in a [data] lake and use it; we use data where it is at rest. We're living with the legacy technology as it renews, so that we're not continuing manana, manana, manana, in order to get the value of what we need. But it's still that challenge of when do you harvest, when do you build new -- when do you just retire?

The biggest thing for me is how do we get the outcomes we need despite the legacy infrastructure.

I wanted to talk about sustainability initiatives for a second, which is on National Grid's roadmap. What is the CIDO's role in sustainability initiatives?

Karaboutis: Where we play and where I think we can play is in measuring. A lot of companies are going to find that they don't have good measures for how you measure your carbon footprint across all three scopes [of emissions]. I think IT will play a key role not just in driving down our own footprint, but in really helping companies measure, and measure as we're progressing on our plans -- are we achieving it.

We've seen SAP position ERP as the heart of sustainability data and build tools to measure things like carbon output. Are you bringing tech in-house to help measure sustainability?

Karaboutis: Right now, we're looking to see what's the best thing to do. It's some build and some buy. As you said, SAP is out in front, and you've got some other companies that have great modules. I just talked to Microsoft yesterday, and they've got some key capabilities they would love to bring in to help us do that. So it's a little bit like cloud -- it's build and buy.

Editor's note: This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.

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