One of Canada’s largest natural gas distributors says it has achieved application integration that will allow it to personalize account management for thousands of large industrial customers.

Gaz Metropolitain began working

on a comprehensive overhaul of its aging legacy systems in 2000, but only completed the final phase in April. The project includes a company-wide implementation of SAP For Utilities, which will handle everything from customer care and service (CCS) and energy data management (EDM) for 2,000 clients in 259 municipalities throughout Quebec.

Hughes Boudoin, Gaz Metropolitain’s IT director, said some of the company’s batch systems were between 15 to 30 years old and written in COBOL. The SAP conversion began with the payroll, human resources and financial applications, which was finished in October 2001. The second phase, centered around EDM, began at the same time but wasn’t finished until June 2002.

The biggest challenges, Boudoin said, were staying within scope of the project and weeding out essential changes from the “”nice to haves”” that could increase the costs.

“”You take a product like SAP, it’s a like a kid in a candy store,”” he said. “”Users say, I need this, I need that. You have to bring back what’s the value of this information as far as the business operations.””

Gaz Metropolitain’s project reflects an industry-wide move by Canada’s utilities to bring their back office and front office systems into the 21st century. Earlier this year BC Hydro, for example, said it would upgrade its applications as it prepared to spin off a new customer support organization.

Eric Janes, BC Hydro‘s vice-president of customer services, said some of the organization’s applications were written in PL 1, a programming language that’s rarely taught anymore.

“”The time and cost and effort to make any changes to respond to any kind of business requirements was becoming increasingly expensive,”” he said.

Boudoin said Gaz Metropolitain noticed that BC Hydro and Hydro-Quebec have also chosen SAP’s tools, which played a part in the final purchasing decision.

“”With SAP, as far as utilities were concerned, they had something like 90 per cent of the market,”” he said, adding that Gaz also looked at what SAP was investing in R&D for its front-office applications.

Gaz Metropolitain will be using budget costs and inventory controls to measure return on investment for the SAP project, Boudoin said. In the meantime, the company has employed 10 people to focus entirely on change management and acclimatize users to new processes and workflow.

“”We’re still tweaking,”” he said. “”We have to be honest now, everything’s not perfect, but it’s doing the job great. It takes at least a year, a year and a half, before users get used to it . . . there’s a learning curve that’s not that short.””

Throughout the project Gaz Metropolitain had a ratio of one consultant for every two or three users, Boudoin added. When the work began in 2000 the company worked with OmniLogic, which was later bought by PricewarterhouseCoopers, which was in turn became part of IBM Global Services last year.

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