The Key to Good Asset Management: Bring Your Data to Life

John Nichols, Chief Architect & Director Enterprise Architecture, Pacific Gas and Electric Company
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John Nichols, Chief Architect & Director Enterprise Architecture, Pacific Gas and Electric Company

One of the biggest challenges for any organization is managing IT assets— keeping them current and updated. The complexity of billions of dollars’ worth of IT assets spread across thousands of miles of service territory or around the globe makes it all the more difficult. How does any organization, large or small, keep track of these assets? How do you monitor asset health and location? Can this data be used for risk-based prioritization of where to invest? Can you make this data user-friendly? And importantly, what are the incremental costs to an organization that operates without a single unified asset management source?

"We’re currently conducting monthly development sprints, and there is a very robust backlog of user stories for at least one year of work —the demand for this type of asset management solution is incredibly high."

Typically, companies collect and document their asset data using various electronic tools or even spreadsheets—and with the best of intentions—commit to keeping the data current. More often than not, the challenge is remembering to put the right people and the right processes in place. If the right process isn’t in place, it’s virtually impossible to keep the data clean.

Companies tend to grow quickly and organically. This means that asset databases and spreadsheets are frequently created in an ad-hoc manner to meet an operational need. As a result, there can be dozens of asset lists in use and inconsistently maintained. Often, a central system is underutilized because it doesn’t meet the users’ needs—and they lose trust in the accuracy of the data.

A typical response to this challenge is implementing a Configuration Management Database (CMDB). However, a CMDB is only as good as the source data. The other common drawback of a CMDB is a data “black-hole”—all of the data goes in and can’t be accessed without using a cumbersome tool or downloading the data to an off-line spreadsheet. It is natural for data that is downloaded to get extended with more attributes or corrections. Correcting the source data can be difficult. Extending the source data to include additional attributes is challenging for many reasons, including getting agreements from all of the different data owners.

So how do business owners address these asset-management challenges? Here’s one solution: create a system with an easy-to-use interface based on an API-enabled NodeJS engine to pull data from the data sources systems. Then create an actively managed, social-media-like way to provide feedback about the data. Show the progress of the data correction right there in the tool. In sum, make the user interface responsive and mobile friendly, built on modern web technologies.

In practice, this approach works with a straightforward feedback button that is integrated with the user interface. A common use case occurs when individuals change jobs. Someone needs to report this, so with the new system, the user simply hits the feedback button and requests a change. To ensure all of the changes are approved by the appropriate owner, put a triage system in place. The user interface reflects the activity of every feedback process so that a user can see the history of changes for that asset on the screen. This wasn’t possible prior to the feedback button.

Many people will recognize this approach as a “federated” CMDB. And it is. However, it’s differentiated by adding a method to provide feedback about the data within the user interface.

We recently implemented this solution at my own company, and it initially began as very IT-centric. However, after sharing with several business partners it went viral—in a good way. Stakeholders said, ‘I want that. I need that. Can you hook that up to our ERP system? And then, ‘Can you show us how IT components impact our business systems? Can you show us where the equipment is, its current health, and how it’s performing? Can you also show us the upstream and downstream impact of making a change to that equipment—or if there is a degradation in performance?’

All of the above is possible—as long as the data is clean. However, there is no way to know if that is the case until the tool is in place—along with the right people viewing the data. The feedback button addresses the lack of trust in the data.

So how did we make it happen? Committing to a development team working on a projecting “waterfall mode” for six months was impractical. We turned to Agile development methodologies. We polled users in advance of the switchover and received an enthusiastic  response.

It was clear after researching modern web technologies that NodeJS and AngularJS fit the objectives perfectly. A development team created a prototype and the results were shared. Due to an overwhelmingly positive response, we launched a formal project. We’re currently conducting monthly development sprints, and there is a very robust backlog of user stories for at least one year of work – the demand for this type of asset management solution is incredibly high.

For this project, the key has been data integration. As long as standard integration methods are used, we can protect the source systems – both from security implications and performance impacts. As a result, development of our solution can happen rapidly.

This data integration solution allows the current processes to remain intact. Updates to the source data are done as close to the work as possible. Additionally, by making the data available in an easy-to-use interface, the data is reviewed more frequently.

So how do you make these changes a reality in your company? Be sure you have a champion in an executive leader and be very clear on the timeline for the needed changes. Then you’re off and running. The benefits of a trusted and unified source for asset management will have the entire company singing your praises.

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