WAPA held its annual Inclusion, Innovation and Technology Summit July 17 at the Rocky Mountain regional office in Loveland, Colorado. This was the third event of its kind, and it carried the theme of "Creating a Culture of Innovation," something of paramount importance to WAPA and its leadership.
"Without a culture of innovation, we simply cannot deliver on our mission effectively," said Administrator and CEO Mark A. Gabriel. "Innovation is woven into the fabric of everything we do, and it is crucial in an evolving industry as we continue to power the energy frontier."
The theme of this year's event built naturally upon last year's theme of "Celebrating WAPA's Innovators." This time, the focus was on encouraging and sustaining a larger atmosphere of innovation within the organization, which was something each of the event's speakers discussed at length.
"What does it take to create a culture of innovation?" posed Information Technology Specialist David Tucker, who emceed and helped organize this year's I2T Summit, in his opening remarks. "It takes all of us to build this culture. Changing the way we think, embracing new ideas and ways of doing business, being inclusive in approaches to problem solving, and not fearing failure."
Tucker's introduction set the tone of the event and encouraged attendees to apply what they learned to their daily lives and careers, but the I2T Summit isn't only about innovation. True to its name, it is also about inclusion.
The first iteration of this event, held in May 2016 at Headquarters in Lakewood, Colorado, was actually called the Technology and Innovation Summit.
The event was initially conceived as an opportunity to recognize and inspire innovation in the development, testing and implementation of emerging new technologies and business process improvements.
In large part, the T&I Summit was quite similar to the I2T Summit we know today. Keynote speakers highlighted the importance of innovation – in this case Bonneville Power Administration Chief Technology Innovation Officer Terry Oliver and SMUD Chief Grid Strategy and Operations Officer Paul Lau – and employees were recognized for their individual contributions to WAPA's culture of innovation with awards.
But something was missing.
"Inclusion is a catalyst for innovation," said Public Utilities Specialist Ebony Dennis, who serves on the Inclusion and Diversity Committee. "Once somebody voiced that perspective, it resonated strongly with those who planned the T&I Summit."
Recognizing that inclusion and innovation complement each other, the event was reconfigured and rebranded as the Inclusion, Innovation and Technology Summit.
"They added 'inclusion' to the name of the event with the goal of emphasizing how valuable our diverse perspectives are," Dennis continued. "The I2T Summit became a showcase for inclusion in action."
The renamed I2T Summit made its debut at the Sierra Nevada regional office in Folsom, California in May 2017.
This version of the event made a point of highlighting the role inclusion plays in innovation. It also featured a panel of NASA employees central to leading that administration's inclusion and innovation program. The NASA representatives spoke about their efforts to develop an inclusive and innovative culture, the challenges they have faced along the way and specific strategies they employ to foster innovation.
This event also marked the debut of the innovation challenge, during which SN staff members in attendance split into four teams and worked to develop innovative solutions to actual concerns facing WAPA.
With the lessons learned and expanded focus from the first two events, 2018's I2T Summit was poised to be the largest and best yet.
"The I2T Committee worked very hard to make the summit a success," said Tucker. Volunteers from across programs and regions came together to ensure that disparate perspectives were heard from and included in the planning process. The committee met regularly over the course of several months to identify needs and gaps, as well as discuss ways to improve the event further.
One of their ideas was to expand the innovation challenge so that remote attendees could participate, emphasizing the event's dedication to inclusivity.
Another change was the creation of an I2T team site on myWAPA, WAPA's internal web portal, an initiative led by Electrical Engineer Jackie Brusoe. The team site, a work in progress, will include features such as an innovation tool kit, a reference library of inclusion and innovation resources, an innovation forum allowing collaboration between WAPA employees regardless of physical distance or boundaries and much more.
The team also assembled an impressive lineup of distinguished guests, including Department of Energy Assistant Secretary Bruce J. Walker, American Public Power Association President and CEO Sue Kelly, and Clark Gellings of Clark Gellings and Associates.
The I2T Committee and representatives from Information Technology and Public Affairs worked tirelessly in the lead-up to the event to ensure success, pulling in their knowledge and experience of producing All-Employee Meetings as well.
The event was set to be the most complex, inclusive and expansive yet.
At the I2T Summit, Walker discussed his deep commitment to inclusion, born from a personal understanding that diverse teams provide organizations with the opportunity to look at things from various perspectives that might not have otherwise been considered. "Diversity increases debate," he declared.
"I was encouraged to hear Assistant Secretary Walker discuss how everyone's opinion matters and how including everyone can generate some of the best ideas, leading to innovation," Dennis said later, reflecting on the event. "From the speakers to the award recipients, the power of inclusion and innovation was on display throughout."
Walker also stressed the importance of proactive innovation in sustaining the grid, as "the daily threats are very real, and they are becoming more sophisticated." As those who would seek to attack the grid are innovating their approaches, power marketing administrations cannot afford to play catchup. "It is an absolutely imperative issue that we must deal with today."
Kelly spoke about the crucial nature of innovation in an evolving industry. "Business as usual isn't going to work anymore," she said.
She and Walker both took questions from the audience – including participants in other regions – after their presentations. These topics were not hypothetical. As Gabriel discussed in his opening remarks, WAPA's culture of innovation has created tangible improvements, enhancements and changes throughout the organization.
"A large number of home-grown innovations have been implemented to create a safer work environment, reduce operational costs and provide greater value to our customers," Gabriel said. "Rocky Mountain linemen created the Burb-o-lifter tool to help crews easily and safely lift overhead static wire. Desert Southwest employees developed a virtual video system to view system conditions without going out into the field. A cross-functional team developed a WAPA-wide approach to automate the collection of dissolved gases and measure the health of transformers."
Supervisory Civil Engineer Gina Crawford also took a moment to speak about her personal experience of innovation at WAPA, and Electrical Engineer Gary Zevenbergen was featured in a video speaking about his 2017 I2T-Award-winning Southwest Area Transmission Short Circuit Model Collaboration SharePoint site.
Later in the day, Management and Program Analyst Stacey Decker led the teams through the innovation challenge, during which they worked together to propose innovative solutions to real-world issues facing WAPA.
The I2T Committee is already hard at work on next year's event. They came together for a lessons-learned meeting less than one week after the I2T Summit.
"The I2T committee is made up of members from all across WAPA," said Asset Management Specialist Jeff Robertson. "This inclusive group generated numerous ideas that culminated in an exceptional summit, and we look forward to doing so again."
In addition, the committee is considering organizing a series of innovation challenges WAPA-wide throughout the year, based on the value and popularity of this activity.
"I am so proud of our team and truly appreciate everybody's contributions in making this event a success," said Tucker. "The senior managers and Assistant Secretary Walker were very complimentary and proud of the result. Bruce even mentioned that the DOE needs to emulate us!"
"You may think that pairing government and innovation is an oxymoron," said Gabriel, "but at WAPA we firmly believe that everyone has the opportunity to turn on an innovation mindset. When you tap into diverse mindsets, skills and experience and weave that into an inclusive work culture, you unlock the power of innovation.
Through support and involvement in events like I2T, WAPA will continue to be recognized as a leader in innovation and a key player to ensure our industry remains relevant and vital to the future energy needs of the West."
Note: Reed is a technical writer who works under the Wyandotte Services contract.