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Institutional Knowledge and Succession Planning in The Cloud: A Low-Cost Way to Capture How Things Really Work
Author: Allan Scott
Date: 4/912
Preprint, AWWA/WEF Utility Management Conference 2012, January 30 – February 2, 2012, Miami, Florida

One of the key challenges of maintaining a utility’s operational performance is the preservation of critical information necessary to optimally run its facilities. The solution to this challenge for the City of Oxnard is to store and manage this critical information in an electronic operations management system (OMS) hosted by a third-party service provider over the Internet. This system, which is available over a secure Internet connection, is used by the City to store, maintain and retrieve important information about its facilities, equipment, operating procedures, and specifications. Using a hosted system can cut the start-up and on-going maintenance costs of the OMS in half compared to implementing the system on a utility’s computer network. This approach increases operational efficiency at a lower cost to the utility over more traditional approaches. System expansion, equipment upgrades, and staff turnover are all threats to operational optimization. Utilities typically rely on the hard-earned experience of their senior operations staff to know what decisions to make and what processes to follow when certain conditions occur. In many cases, senior staff have learned from the “school of hard knocks” and have gained significant critical knowledge over the years about how to run their systems. But what happens when these senior staff retire or transfer out of their position? Many times, this critical information goes with them. Typically less-experienced staff will take their place and may have to re-learn this critical knowledge by making the same mistakes made previously. This erodes the utility’s performance and leads to chronic problems such as increased maintenance costs, ongoing operational problems, regulatory issues, and reduced asset life. Add to that the ongoing process of improving facilities – which require more training, documentation, and more complex procedures – and it becomes clear why it is difficult to achieve key effective utility management attributes such as operational optimization, operational resiliency, and infrastructure stability. One way to immediately address this issue is to capture this institutional knowledge in an electronic OMS while the experienced staff are still available. An OMS is a computer application that organizes, integrates, and automates retrieval of operations and maintenance information. By capturing this knowledge and presenting it in an easy to use format, a utility can standardize operational processes, reduce the time it takes to locate critical information, increase operational efficiency, and reduce the cost of maintaining standard operating procedures and other system documentation. With the utility’s institutional knowledge captured in an electronic OMS, new or less experience staff can use the system for reference or training and build on what has been learned in the past. There are many types of electronic OMS systems available and most are expensive to implement and difficult to maintain. Today, however, technologies are available the make it easier for utilities to acquire and implement an OMS. Cloud computing, or the ability to access computer resources remotely over the Internet, makes it possible to obtain and implement an OMS at a lower start-up cost than if the OMS were managed on the utility’s network. In this scenario, the OMS software is owned by a service provider who makes it available to the utility for a monthly fee. The utility gets a secure, protected, web-based OMS that manages facility information without the difficulties of software procurement, implementation, or maintenance. When the City of Oxnard Public Works Department decided to upgrade and expand their wastewater treatment facilities, they included development of an electronic operations manual to preserve their institutional knowledge. In order to save money and simplify management of the OMS, they elected to use a hosted solution provided by a separate service provider. The hosted OMS, OMSConnect™, is a secure, web-based solution built specifically for water and wastewater utilities to manage and organize equipment, procedures, and specifications related to the utility’s infrastructure. This option has several advantages over implementing and maintaining a system locally on the City’s network. The City was able to save money by eliminating: • Licensing and implementation costs • Internal maintenance and information technology support for the system and data • Hardware acquisition and administration costs Instead, the City pays a monthly fee for use of the system over the Internet. The service provider provides an Internet-accessible server that contains only the City’s data. The system is available through a secure login process 24 hours a day from any Internet-connected computer. There are several key features of OMSConnect™ that makes it easy to capture and maintain institutional knowledge. The system comes with an easy to use interface that allows operators to directly add and edit content without the need for specialized information technology expertise. It leverages common Internet components, such as hot links and interactive graphics that easily connect related operational information or external websites. It also provides a built-in editing workflow that allows any operators to suggest content updates, but controls the publishing of updated material through an approval process. The system also supports multiple types of media including video, images, graphics, and documents (e.g., Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel) to optimize training and knowledge transfer. These features make it easier to engage operations staff to update and obtain information without adding significantly to their workload.