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CIO interview: James Robbins, CIO, Drax Group

Power company is embarking on a technology change programme, aiming to create a more diverse IT set-up and exploit new technologies

As power firm Drax moves forward with an entirely new business model and strategy, its technology function is also undergoing a makeover to support diversification across the group. 

Drax has moved from simply being a power generator to sourcing its own biomass (compressed wood pellets) from its operation in the US and supplying electricity and gas to UK businesses. 

Since the company announced its new strategy in December 2016, it has also acquired a new supplier, four projects to build gas-fuelled power stations, and a new pellet mill in the US. 

“The rapid pace of change across the business requires a much more diverse IT set-up and I have been brought in to oversee a group-wide development in our IT capability and architecture,” says the company’s chief information officer, James Robbins, who joined in January. 

According to Robbins, the IT portfolio at Drax is “currently very mixed”, a reflection of business expansion through organic growth and acquisitions. 

“There has not previously been a group-wide strategy on systems architecture, so we have a mixture of solutions,” the CIO says about the IT estate, which supports 2,500 users across the group’s three divisions.  

Drax Biomass in the US is predominantly a Microsoft shop, with AX asset management and some customer relationship management capabilities running on MS Dynamics. These are almost entirely hosted on the Microsoft Azure platform, says Robbins, who points out that the US business runs “a very lean support operation”.

At Drax Power, the focus is mostly on asset management, with back-office functions based mainly on IBM Maximo asset management and Infor products. Within the retail side of the business there is a new investment in an Oracle Utilities platform, along with Oracle cloud-based products for sales, marketing and finance.   

Getting the house in order 

Following Robbins’ appointment in January, the main goal for Drax in terms of technology was to lead programmes related to acquisition and consolidation. That has meant a migration of all of its business to Microsoft Office 365 for collaboration, which he defines as a “game-changer” for all its user base.  

In February, following the acquisition of SME retailer Opus Energy, another body of work has started to prepare the company – with bases in Northampton, Oxford and Cardiff – to be migrated to Office 365. 

“I have been brought in to oversee a group-wide development in our IT capability and architecture”
James Robbins, Drax Power

Drax has also been through a procurement and blueprinting exercise over the past six months at Haven Power, which will see the business migrate to a new Oracle-supplied platform. A major upgrade of Maximo at the company’s power station is also under way. 

“This is part of a major programme of work to become smart compliant, which is part of the UK’s investment into modern meters that can help you manage your electricity better,” says Robbins. 

Government data suggests that about 3.3 million first-generation smart meters have been installed in UK homes. The current plan is that by the end of 2020, about 53 million will be fitted in more than 30 million homes and businesses. Drax is now looking into technology improvements to support that future demand. 

“We need some major systems improvement in our retail division so we can deal with a move to meter reads every 30 minutes in a much more secure way,” says the CIO. 

Exploiting new technology 

Robbins says the coming months will see the Drax technology team integrate the various parts of the business into a basic IT support offering. This includes the implementation of a standard laptop, desktop and mobile policy, a standard set of service desk tools and a common hosting strategy. 

“By doing this, we will be able to release our local support teams to really focus on exploiting technology within their businesses, to really add value to our customers and shareholders,” says Robbins, citing as examples the Oracle investment for sales, marketing and financial functions, as well as a new meter data management platform.  

“We are also building on some great relationships in our security chain so that we can build a much more supportive service for our SME customers, trying to emulate some of the great features that you get with digital giants such as Amazon,” he says.

“We are also working with a number of suppliers on potentially disruptive solutions so that we can accelerate the unique mix of knowledge in the Drax group to make better use of energy.”

Other innovations

Examples of other innovations that have caught Robbins’ eye, which could be applied to the business, include the work the firm is doing with a supplier on dark web searches to proactively seek out customers of its retail businesses who may be vulnerable to data theft or hacking attempts. 

The power company also wants to evolve its cloud capabilities and is working with Amazon and Microsoft on how it might build on the maturity of existing investments to improve support functions as voice APIs mature in line with the capabilities of personal digital assistants. According to Robbins, Drax has also been working with Siemens on OT/IT convergence to improve the efficiency and responsiveness of its heavy assets. 

Blockchain is also something that really interests me at the moment,” he says. “I can see huge potential for this in the development of community grids as the UK energy model sees more power generation shift to ‘off grid’ technology, such as wind and solar.”

Major changes ahead 

According to its CIO, Drax IT has historically been “quite transactional” in most of its supplier base, with the more mature partnerships being in the power generation business. However, the shift in core business strategy means the technology supplier base is expected to look very different in the coming year. 

“I am predicting huge change in the next 12 months as we move to a new framework of alliance and preferred supply mix,” says Robbins. 

“We are starting with contracting agencies – we have at least 20 across the group – and we are looking to consolidate on margin and volume here. 

“Then, closely following the publication of our IT strategy in the autumn, I would expect to see some software vendors, system integrators and consultancy consolidation as we look to get the benefit from a fairly large-scale group-wide portfolio of transformation projects. There are some exciting times ahead.” 

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According to Robbins, with so much change going on within IT at Drax, his biggest challenge will be to keep up with all the change across the entire business – and having a lot of base capability to build.  

“Luckily, I have a board who already see the potential returns from the safe deployment of a large-scale digital platform,” he says. 

“To do this, we must get the basics right by delivering our technology change programme and put the platforms and methods in place for us to exploit modern technology, which is what many of our ongoing IT investments are about,” he said. 

Despite the challenges ahead, Robbins believes his experience in heavy asset and retail businesses will help to execute the strategy at Drax. Having spent the last 12 years working with water, waste, bus and rail businesses also means he has developed a strong support network to help him get through the changes ahead.  

“It also helps that we have been able to move quickly to build a new leadership team that has a huge capability to deliver all of the exciting things we have planned,” he says. “In fact, I can’t wait to get started.”

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