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Organizational change management at utilities: pitfalls and challenges

This article first appeared in Energy Central.

Today’s utility customer has come to expect the same level of customer experience and service that the likes of Amazon or a financial institution provide. That is, proactive, real-time and with interaction anywhere and anytime through multiple digital channels.  

To address these expectations, utilities recognized that they need to modernize their grid, diversify the services that they provide and improve how they interact and engage with their customers. As a result, many are in the midst of launching large scale technology-enabled transformation programs that span much of their organization and involve multiple external vendors. These multi-faceted programs—covering operations, customer service, field operations, technology-enablement, data analytics and more—are complex and success often hinges on how well utilities prepare their organizations and subsequently manage the change throughout the lifespan of the program. 

Most executives and program sponsors understand how critical managing this change is and the need for having a strategy in place for doing this up front. To help utilities get started, below are examples of key elements to include in a successful and effective executive support plan for Organizational Change Management (OCM):

- Establishing a change management strategy and framework.

- Identifying and coaching change champions across and at all levels of the organization.

- Advocating for training sandbox access to new systems and functionality, with the aim to demystify the new features and support better adoption and proficiency at ‘go-live.’

- Encourage post go-live support for supplemental training and skills development.

- Insist on training activities that use real data (not mocked up data), have a full complement of job specific procedural documentation vs. functionality-based training.

All the above are typical and common sense approaches to help the organization deliver business value from new systems/technology/processes they are implementing. For most utilities, it is easy to deliver a new system/technology, but it is hard to deliver a system/technology that users will use effectively, efficiently and consistently. In other words, change management is about delivering user adoption, user proficiency and business value.

In the utility sector, companies often get off on the right foot when it comes to change management but then struggle to follow through on earlier commitments and plans. Why is this? Good intentions and early planning in the program quickly meet the realities of constrained budgets, resource limitations and time pressures. Unfortunately, the intangible, though important, components of well executed change management activities are often the first casualties. 

Even among committed C-level sponsors and program leadership, it is not uncommon to readjust priorities and delivery schedules to achieve the program milestones, which in the heat of delivery is the ‘go-live’ segment of a new technology/system. Too often, the implications of reducing the focus of change management programs and follow-through in order to accommodate budgets and timelines isn’t felt until it’s too late.

In order to avoid these pitfalls, utility companies should incorporate change management activities/plans into the project management lifecycle and approach that has (hopefully) already been established at both the program and project level.

By treating alterations to the change management strategy and approach as risks to be managed, you can bring visibility to the implications. Examples include moving ahead with training on sample data instead of real-world data, or executing vendor supplied ”functional” training instead of developing and executing job-specific training programs on the new system/technology.

In a proper risk management approach, the implications on benefits realization—not just budget, scope and timeline—will be revealed. This allows both executives and the delivery team to really understand the impact of reducing or redirecting change management activities, plans and resources.

Ultimately, for many utilities, a change management approach will develop organically from what they have done in the past with various levels of success. But for those utilities looking to take big steps forward, they would do well to spend some time at the beginning of their program to consider not only if they have all the pieces they need, but, more importantly, the pitfalls of losing sight of the relentless focus needed on user adoption, proficiency and business benefits.

Jonida Regi and Ross Smith are energy and utility experts at PA Consulting Group








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