By Philip Reed
On the afternoon of Nov. 18, WAPA kicked off its Inclusion, Innovation and Technology Summit, or I2T Summit, with the theme Innovation Takes Everyone in a Changing World. It was the fifth event of its kind, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic it looked and was organized much differently than it had been in the past.
COVID-19 put the ethos of the I2T Summit to the test. With the event serving as an annual celebration of inclusion, innovation and technology, would it be able to illustrate those concepts itself, adapting nimbly to these unprecedented circumstances?
As Administrator and CEO Mark A. Gabriel put it in his opening remarks, “The saying goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ This year, we hit the motherlode of necessity due to the pandemic.”
The I2T Committee decided early in the year to postpone the event from its usual summer timeslot to November. This was done in the hopes that COVID-19 would have at least begun to recede as a threat and in-person gatherings would again be possible. This, of course, did not happen, and it was up to the team to reimagine the I2T Summit as an entirely virtual event.
The necessity of change also provided an opportunity to reevaluate and evolve other aspects of the I2T Summit.
The biggest difference was the fact that the previous events were held in person, with an effort made each year to include as many attendees as possible.
The I2T Summit had traditionally been hosted at either Headquarters or regional offices, with the event streamed to attendees across WAPA’s footprint. While this had initially been done in the name of inclusion, it ended up serving as important experience when creating an entirely virtual event this year.
On the bright side, an all-virtual event meant that many of the standard considerations were no longer an issue.
“There are a million little details that need to be considered for an onsite event,” said Electrical Engineer and I2T Committee Chair Jackie Brusoe. “Parking, security, travel arrange¬ments, room reservations, seating charts and A/V equipment, to name only a few, all need to be sorted out well in advance.”
According to Brusoe, the fact that these considerations would no longer require logistical bandwidth made the planning easier.
“Note that I said ‘easier,’” she emphasized. “Not ‘easy.’”
For every typical consideration that wouldn’t be a concern this year, there would be at least one new one that would.
“To our knowledge, an event on this scale was a first for WAPA, and there were a lot of unknowns and what-ifs to work through,” said Brusoe.
The virtual event provided room for experimenting with the format.
Previously, I2T Summits had been single-day affairs. This made sense, as participants, guests and attendees would need to make travel and lodg¬ing arrangements. Keeping the entire event confined to a single day made these things less complicated.
Without those concerns, however, the decision was made to split the various activities of the I2T Summit across two days, more easily allowing attendees to tune in for the segments that most interested them.
“One of the big upsides of a virtual event was the ability to enable more participation, simply by being able to participate from one’s own computer versus having to travel,” said Brusoe. “Along those same lines, it was easier to secure guest speakers.”
The increased flexibility with speakers led to three well-received presentations by the I2T Summit’s guests of honor.
These were Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Energy Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response Nicholas Andersen; Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories Director of Sales and Customer Service Matt Leoni; and Southwest Power Pool President and CEO Barbara Sugg. Andersen and Leoni spoke on day one, with Sugg kicking off day two.
The other major difference between the days was that the I2T Award Ceremony was held on day one and the Innovation Challenge on day two.
An innovative Innovation Challenge
The Innovation Challenge is an annual tradition during which partici¬pants team up with others from across WAPA to brainstorm solutions to real-world issues facing the organization.
In previous years, each team was given a matter of hours to meet, study the problem, discuss potential solu¬tions and present their idea to a panel of judges. This time, with so much changing already, the Innovation Challenge did some experimenting as well.
“One thing I kept hearing from past participants is that they wished they knew the Innovation Challenge topics in advance,” said Power System Dispatcher Trainer and Innovation Challenge Chair Jon Sirney. “I thought it might be a good idea to give that a try. So, on the Monday before the I2T Summit, I met with the participants and presented the issues for them to ad¬dress. They were able to take as much or as little time as they liked before the Innovation Challenge on Nov. 19 to meet and prepare their solutions.”
Another innovative concept this year was soliciting employees for their thoughts on what issues should be addressed through the Innovation Challenge.
Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the issues submitted by employees were related in some way to COVID-19. Sirney and his team selected two top¬ics for the participants to brainstorm: how to improve virtual meetings and how to facilitate virtual training and knowledge retention.
With the new approach to the agenda, there was one final question to address.
“Perhaps our biggest challenge we were trying to tackle was how to keep the audience’s attention,” said Brusoe. “At an in-person event, people pay attention because they’re physically in the room. With a virtual event, there can be a lot of distraction. We worked hard to create a program that was worth everyone’s time.”
In order to keep the I2T Summit engaging in a virtual format, Brusoe worked closely with Information Technology to create a series of videos.
“Usually with virtual events, at¬tendees end up basically watching a PowerPoint presentation,” said Electrical Engineer and I2T Committee Chair Brian Bucks. “It’s difficult to keep that interesting over long periods of time, so we wanted to add some visual variety.”
Brusoe and IT worked with Public Affairs to prepare a collection of videos in advance. They were screened peri¬odically throughout the two-day event. In many cases, the winners appeared in videos to discuss the initiatives that earned them I2T Awards.
“There isn’t normally time for an acceptance speech or anything along those lines,” Bucks explained. “There are too many winners every year for something like that. This was a nice middle ground. It kept things varied for the audience and gave a lot of our winners a chance to speak about their innovative successes. It worked out well.”
The number of I2T Award nomina¬tions had increased from around 15 nominations in previous years to 40.
The virtual format also allowed for more-convenient Q&A opportunities with the guest speakers. The audience was able to type questions into a chat window which would then be relayed after their presentations. The result was an even more interactive experi¬ence than what the event had been before.
Room to grow
The I2T Summit was a success, with few of the technical hiccups that one might have expected of a first-time event this large. Any unforeseen issues that did rear their heads were addressed promptly.
The very nature of the event acknowledges that there is always room to grow, however, and the I2T Committee is already brainstorming improvements that can be made in coming years.
“An unexpected problem was in communicating the event informa¬tion,” said Brusoe. Despite regular WAPA-wide emails and postings to the organization’s intranet, employees still were not seeing the information they needed. “The sheer number of emails I received in the 24 hours before the event asking for the WebEx informa¬tion was overwhelming for me, and probably frustrating for employees.”
Additionally, an ongoing chal¬lenge is enabling participation from members of the craft community, who spend far more time in the field than at their computers.
“The I2T Team discusses this at length,” Brusoe said. “Unfortunately, we have not figured out how to over¬come the barriers … yet.”
Those are questions for next year, however; the team behind the event is satisfied with the high quality of 2020’s I2T Summit, which ended up illustrat¬ing the concept of innovation in ways that were not originally intended.
“Innovation does take everyone in a changing world but, in reality, innova¬tion takes everyone all the time,” said Gabriel in his remarks. “The world will always be changing. Those changes may come from rapid upheaval in the organization and the world, like we are seeing with COVID-19, but they are much more likely to come from within our people each day striving to make a difference.”
He concluded by thanking the attendees and participants for once again spotlighting WAPA’s culture of innovation.
“Thank you for caring enough about WAPA, our mission, our customers and our people to expend your time and energy making the WAPA of tomorrow a better place than the WAPA of today,” he said. “It is because of you that we will be able to secure a place for a relevant and valuable WAPA in the future.”
Note: Reed is a public affairs specialist.