Southside Electric Cooperative is a not-for-profit, member-owned electric distribution cooperative. The company's mission behind its IT strategy is to ensure uninterrupted service to a growing customer base.

Unlike a publicly held or government-owned utility, an electric cooperative provides its service at cost and any funds above operating expenses are credited back to its members.

Interestingly, Southside Electric has experienced significant growth over the past five years. In fact, the state of Virginia is the seventh fastest growing state, and the burgeoning population is having an impact on the power supply. For Southside Electric, this growth presented business and IT challenges.

The cooperative's previously unconnected systems resulted in service delays and reporting errors that affected Southside's service to its member/consumers. For example, when the cooperative mistakenly sent letters to the wrong batch of customers regarding a planned outage, the ripple effect on the call centers, dispatch teams and the billing department resulted in widespread frustration. These issues led Southside Electric Cooperative to evaluate the way the co-op's investments in technology were aligned with its business goals of reducing costs and ensuring customers are not without electricity. The resulting decision was to create a service-oriented architecture (SOA).

Southside Electric's SOA strategy was twofold. The first priority was to bring together the CEO and business leaders with the cooperative's IT professionals to build consensus on the coop's new direction. The second part of the strategy was to link and recycle Southside Electric's myriad applications and data sources that track customer records, outage reports, automated meter management, geographical maps, billing and accounts receivable records, and repair truck dispatch information as well as internal business processes such as finance, human resources and procurement. To measure its success, Southside Electric Cooperative benchmarked the response time to customer service calls, the overall productivity of staff and the amount of its capital credits dividend that is shared among its 52,500 customers.

While the cooperative cites tangible benefits gained through the technology underpinnings of an SOA, it's important to recognize its first critical step on the path to success. This step is the creation of a cross-cooperative team representing each part of the business to ensure various needs are clearly understood, business goals are met, and the entire Southside Electric community realizes gains from its investments.

Using IBM WebSphere software and services to build its SOA and integrate its various applications, Southside Electric was able to aggregate information from separate systems, giving employees a single, comprehensive, real-time view of customer accounts and engineering resources. Now, when information is updated in one system, the changes are reflected automatically in the others. Additionally, Southside Electric was able to easily integrate new applications, including Qualcomm's OmniTracs satellite communications for real-time mobile data and ESRI Geographical Information System (GIS) maps to connect the field service team to the office.

Southside Electric has realized significant benefits through an SOA, such as reduced administrative work, streamlined customer service processes and expansion of the company's capacity for growth. More specifically, these benefits include reduction of service work from three days to one day, data entry that previously required 30 minutes is now complete within several seconds and the co-op's automated service order system is three times faster than the previous paper-based system.

Through its SOA, Southside Electric is able to protect IT investments by recycling many of its existing software applications without compromising productivity or customer service.

Through standards-based technology and services expertise, Southside Electric was able to integrate legacy applications and recycle its existing software while seeing dramatic improvements in our overall operations. Now the company's employees are better able to focus on their jobs instead of filling out forms or waiting for information. This has resulted in better service for the co-op's membership, which is the ultimate goal.

Southside Electric Cooperative's new business strategy that is supported by an SOA helped the coop deliver a $1.8 million capital credits dividend to its 52,500 customers for 2006.

Southside Electric Cooperative is using the following software to build its SOA: IBM WebSphere Business Integration Message Broker for connectivity and universal data transformation; WebSphere MQ for reliable application integration; WebSphere Business Integration Adapters to extract data from packaged applications and connect them to a central hub; and WebSphere Portal for the user interface.

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