UC Trends and Smart Grid Opportunities – Parallels to Learn From
By now, you’ve read plenty of accounts of Enterprise Connect, and are au courant with the state of the universe pertaining to UC. With that meta-perspective in mind, I’m going to give you my vertical spin on the smart grid market, a space I spend a fair bit of time in. This may not yet be a prime vertical market for UC applications, but as it becomes more mainstream and consumer-centric, this will absolutely change.
In the meantime, I’d like to share with you some parallels in the challenges both UC and smart grid are going through. Last week, I got a first-hand update on the latter, as I was involved in the Energy Thought Summit (ETS), and found the parallels both striking and fascinating. At minimum, they show that UC’s challenges aren’t all that unique, and as UC matures, there will be some valuable lessons learned that should accelerate developing the smart grid space as a vertical market opportunity. As an aside, if you’re interested in my back story with the ETS event, here’s a good starting point.
UC is not a means to an end
At UCStrategies, we often focus on the UC concept, but as Enterprise Connect made clear, most of the conversation now is about collaboration, which really is the bigger picture outcome from a good UC experience. The differences are subtle, and to keep things simple, the terms are often mashed together, so we see a lot of UC+C out there. My point is that it’s easy to fixate on UC, which is a first generation framework for what businesses are really looking for. However, with UC applications becoming more embedded now across various communications platforms, businesses are less interested in the UC concept and more interested in the outcomes from collaboration.
There’s a similar shift happening in the smart grid space. During ETS, there was a lot of talk about smart grid, but the focus is changing. Until recently, smart grid has been a means to an end – how to make utilities smarter via modernization and adopting new technology. The early days of UC were no different – UC was about UC – the focus on collaboration came later. Now, as the smart grid space is maturing, there’s more talk now about smart cities in terms of where the big payoff comes. In other words, the power grid is just one part of a bigger solution that’s needed for urban centers. Smart cities also need smart systems for gas, water, roads, etc. – all the elements that make up the urban infrastructure. This is collaboration of a different kind, but the path to get there is similar to what UC is now going through.
Nobody knows what you’re talking about
I have long been writing about how UC is a vendor-coined term that really doesn’t mean much to end users. We don’t really think in those terms, but we do see the value of leveraging multiple applications to increase productivity. In other words, we’re often “doing” UC, but didn’t know there was a name for it.
Well, the smart grid sector isn’t any different. Utilities and vendors definitely know what smart grid means, but not so much among consumers. Research cited at ETS indicated that 50% of Americans have never heard of “smart grid,” and 25% have no idea what it means. This isn’t very encouraging, considering that smart grid bears another strong parallel to UC – both require end-user adoption to be successful. That’s pretty hard to do when most people don’t know what you’re talking about, and that utilities have not been good at engaging with subscribers to provide some basic education. Sounds a lot like telecom prior to deregulation, right?
Relevant apps make all the difference
As we know, UC is becoming more applications-centric, and speaks to the way people like to work now. UC is not widely deployed in the smart grid space, but the best example from ETS came from the CEO of Direct Energy, Badar Khan. Generally speaking, consumers don’t spend much time thinking about their energy bill because they can’t understand it. They don’t think in terms of kWh, and find this about as interesting as their cable bill or phone bill – not.
Badar Khan understands the nature of the problem, and has taken the bold step to demystify this information, and present it in terms consumers understand. Not only that, but he recognizes you have to deliver it in a manner that resonates with consumers, and that’s where social media and apps come into play. This isn’t really high level UC, but the point is that consumers will engage with things that are relevant to them, and that’s what Direct Energy is doing. Today, people want to know about the here and now – not how much energy they consumed last month.
As such, Direct Energy uses text messaging to tell subscribers how much energy they’re consuming today – overall and for every appliance in your household. Not only does this format of information add value, but it empowers subscribers with tools to help them better manage energy consumption. In UC parlance, this is no different than giving employees the right tools to collaborate. Over time, that data will take on a new life when shared on social media, and will provide higher-order aggregate data about how customers are using energy.
Smart meters and smart devices
If you don’t have a smart meter attached to your house, you probably don’t know what it does. In terms of technology adoption, this is akin to the early days of smart phones. At that time, the vast majority of mobile devices were actually still phones and weren’t built for data – which pretty much describes the conventional electricity meter (dumb) that gauges power consumption in most people’s homes.
In the smart grid world, smart meters are very much the equivalent of smart phones, and provide an entirely new level of data – and value for both utilities and subscribers. Both technologies are highly disruptive, and are on their way to becoming the norm. Smart meters have a ways to go, but there’s no doubt they’ll get there. By 2020, there will be 1.2 billion smart meters globally, and as with smart phones, they will create a gigantic flow of new data that can impact every link in the energy value chain.
We’re still trying to figure this out with smart phones, but the potential is clear. Smart meters will follow the same path, and my point is that new forms of communications technology can be highly disruptive, and that will give rise to new types of businesses that can figure out how to derive value from this data, as well as manage it in a secure fashion. Just as UC is increasingly becoming mobile-centric, so too will smart grid applications in terms of tapping into the data thrown off by smart meters as they become the norm for every smart household.
BYOD and solar panels
This may seem like a stretch, but bear with me. We all know that BYOD can very disruptive for UC by taking network control away from IT, and allowing employees to use apps of their choosing, on their terms, and on their devices. This is not what IT had in mind with UC, but it’s happening. Not only that, but it’s happening quickly, and on a scale that can seriously undermine the UC value proposition.
Believe it or not, but solar panels are playing the same role in smart grid. In the U.S., a solar panel is being installed once every three minutes, so they’re coming on strong, just like smart devices with BYOD. In the same vein, solar panels are all about the consumer – who doesn’t like the idea of generating their own power? Not only is it very green, but you can cut down your power bill a lot, and even make money by selling surplus power back into the grid. Just as BYOD is really about BYOA (apps), solar panels are about BYOP (power). Both are very empowering for end users, and if that’s not being factored into your plans, you will not succeed with UC or smart grid, respectively.
These are just a few examples from ETS that have strong parallels with smart grid, and once you see them, I hope you’ll agree that UC’s struggles really aren’t that unique. More importantly, once UC vendors learn how to address the issues on a broad scale, they’ll be better able to apply lessons learned to vertical markets like smart grid. Once you understand the dynamics of a vertical market and the vocabulary to define the moving parts, the parallels will become clear and from there, you’ll have an easier time demonstrating how that vertical market can have success with UC.