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Swedish energy company Vattenfall democratizes data to boost collaboration

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood February 17, 2022
Use of data catalog software from supplier Alation ushering in a new data ‘culture’ at Vattenfall

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(Image by Matthew Slowe from Pixabay )

As part of on-going decarbonization efforts, a major European energy producer says a shift to totally new ways of working with its data is proving critical. This is based on the use of a new data collaboration and governance platform. This, it claims, is starting to democratize its approach to data, plus is bringing people from across the organization together to collaboratively solve business problems.

And as with many organizations, a shift to remote working during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic made it even more important to document data and the methods around it. Now, improved use of data means staff always know who to contact and can ask the right questions straight away.

Finding a better way  

The company in question is Vattenfall, a state-owned energy producer and retailer headquartered in Solna, Sweden. Active in its local market for over a century, the company now also operates in the power generation, distribution and the sale of electricity, heat, and gas, across Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, the UK, and Germany. (Its name is a call back to its hydroelectric roots, meaning ‘waterfall' in Swedish.)

Driving the pivot to data has been Sebastian Kaus, who is both one of the organization's engineers but also its new Data Governance Lead. Kaus is responsible for the development and implementation of a group-wide data governance framework which involves helping people within Vattenfall work more efficiently.

This, he said, is being achieved by bridging the gap between conventional engineering disciplines and innovative, data-driven approaches. Kaus explains the business case for doing this:

Our mission is to achieve fossil-free living within a generation. This means that we are primarily focused on decarbonizing the production of electricity, and we do this by working with partners in other industries, like using hydrogen to operate our power plants more efficiently, sustainably, and profitably. These are complex processes that we're focused on continuously improving, which requires optimising asset management and scheduling maintenance in a smarter way.

This meant finding a better way for our business units and partners to collaborate using the business and technical data locked away in siloed systems. We needed a solution that would simultaneously democratize our data while governing and protecting it from misuse. And for this, we need trusted data.

Working like this, he said, requires constant communication and data sharing between partners to operate efficiently. However, a lack of access to data was hampering collaboration. But even to operate, Vattenfall managers were seeing how day-to-day operations, like monitoring equipment performance and scheduling maintenance, requires what he calls "extensive data insights". 

For example, ensuring a technician knows which exact parts and tools she needs to bring to a site where equipment is underperforming translates into cost savings. Another driver was achieving better compliance with key EU regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Kaus said that to meet these needs, software from vendor Alation has been implemented. The vendor promises to make it easy for teams to have access to the data they need, with guidance in the flow of their work on how to use it. Kaus said that in Vattenfall's context, that means a simple, easy-to-use Google-like internal search system that offers ways for terms to find information they're looking for. He said,

With the Data Catalog, we have been able to easily curate the metadata from our many business units into one place to facilitate data search and discovery across the organization.

From the user's point of view, there's also a business glossary that helps to define standard Vattenfall and partner common terminology to ensure a common understanding of critical business terms. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can now share their expertise through articles in the system, which accelerates the transfer of knowledge throughout the organization.

Specific benefits accrued so far include a reduction of the time needed to produce new proof-of-concept projects time-to-value from 3-4 months to 3-4 weeks. As a result, Vattenfall can launch new projects and programs and gain business value from them up to 81% faster, he said. Another improvement has been better use and protection of personal data.

Ground-level involvement 

The project has also exposed how many Vattenfall business processes have been built for an older, analog world, resulting in the survival of steps and checks not required for a digital business. Manual checks or alignment processes necessary in the past can now either be automated or completely skipped, once the underlying process has been properly digitized.

An interesting aspect of this improved collaboration has been getting significant help on opening up Vattenfall data via Vattenfall people's help. For example, while Kaus and his team were documenting important data, it identified staff who knew the most about that data. These are now acting as data stewards, who use system features to tag data, guiding fellow users to data trusted and safe to use.

Such ground-level involvement in improving the corporate knowledge base has, Kaus stated, quickly established a whole data culture around good information governance. He said:

Collaboration around well-governed data is becoming more and more part of Vattenfall's organizational DNA and our culture. We basically sneaked it into the normal way of working, so now the best proponents of the data catalog are our active users. Once they discover how easy it is to find the data they need, they become champions. That's because productivity and efficiency increase when data is easy to find, share, and update.

To build on this promising start, Vattenfall next plans to implement the Snowflake cloud data platform so data from both its B2B and B2C business units can be added to the catalog.

Such moves, Kaus said, will further process to the overall organizational aim:

Our vision is to create a community around data where people simply reach out to each other and share information. We want to create a culture where people know and trust the data they need to work with.

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