How do you go about driving digital cultural transformation throughout a utility colossus straddling both sides of the Atlantic? National Grid’s Adriana (Andi) Karaboutis tells us first you must find your North Star*

She’s no stranger to big remits, but technology guru Andi Karaboutis is the first to accept that her job at National Grid is huge.

It’s just a year since she took on the newly created role of chief information and digital officer at the multinational utility behemoth. In fact, “one year, two weeks,” as the US-based, entrepreneurial thought leader happily points out. “But I’m not counting, I’m celebrating,” she laughs.

Despite the miles, the reputed trademark enthusiasm that’s brought her renown for driving innovation across a gamut of industries, including automotive, high-tech, big pharma and defence, is unmistakable during our transatlantic call.

And that Karaboutis, who has worked with such global titans as General Motors, Dell, Ford and Biogen, has offered to chat during what for most people on the eastern seaboard is the early hours of a public holiday, speaks volumes about her passion for this latest role.

Her ambition for harnessing key emerging digital opportunities that will bolster the company’s adapting UK and US business models comes through loud and clear. As does her conviction to see them play vital roles, particularly in terms of security, resilience and customer service, as well as bringing real value through technology for National Grid.

A top electronic computer control systems graduate with a CV so strong she could work pretty much anywhere on the tech career spectrum, it soon becomes abundantly clear that the energy sector is now her inspiration.

She is quick to cite the thoughts of one of her heroes – Microsoft’s principal founder – on the subject. “I often quote Bill Gates, who says if he were to start all over again, one of the top three areas he would go into would be energy. And I used to think to myself, I feel that way as well.”

This, she reveals, is what made the opportunity with National Grid unmissable. “The energy sector is at a great crossroads where technology can influence it tremendously and bring great value for consumers, producers and utilities alike.

“I see an appetite in the energy and utilities sector, a willingness to really look into what technologies can bring and what the opportunities are, and I see that both from the regulator’s side as well as the provider’s. And I really wanted to be part of that, it’s exciting.”

Fundamental to this has been the broad scope of the role, combining both National Grid’s IT and its digital operations to help the company meet its vision to ‘exceed the expectations of customers, shareholders and communities today and make possible the energy systems of tomorrow’.

And her appointment (in July 2017) came during a period of pivotal movement, both for National Grid itself (including the separating out of its system operator function from the rest of the business), and the increasingly dynamic and flexible energy landscape it works within.

“I was brought on board as the CIO and digital officer, which is hugely important. Because while it encompasses information technology, it also recognises the need for digital – which is how do we drive things like distributed energy using technology, better customer experience and customer enablement, frictionless working, frictionless employee and digital asset management. All of those things are under the umbrella of digital, and IT is core to all of that. So the recognition that those two things are partners and come together into one role was very exciting for me.”

The post itself, with oversight in both regions, sees Karaboutis working very closely with her executive direct reports in the UK and US. It’s a technological realm that incorporates everything from running the corporate systems, to the company’s cyber-security and physical security. Safety and reliability of service are naturally paramount, ensuring ‘seamless capability’ in a 24/7 company she deftly characterises as being “always up and always on”.

“We have a strategy that encompasses everything, so yes my role and remit are big. But that strategy involves a significant and heavy partnership between the UK and US business units, which talks about what needs to be done and how well we need it done.

“The role I have is to ensure we have an IT and digital organisation that executes on it and gets it done to the region specificity – and brings new technologies to the table. So when you think about blockchain, analytics, machine learning, all of those things, I feel accountability with my colleagues in the business to see how we leverage those.” A “huge focus”, she adds, is on the customer, “delivering energy when needed, where needed and in the quantities that are needed”.

Yet neither the job’s breadth, nor its being within a publicly traded utility, holds any concern for Karaboutis – quite the opposite. “I think it’s very exciting that this huge British multinational is able to do great work on both sides of the Atlantic, and that just added to the attraction for me. Because you’re dealing with two sets of regulators, two sets of legal formats, you’re dealing with opportunity. There are some very advanced stories in the UK, and in the US. In many ways that just adds to the intrigue. And I’m also very interested in the global aspect of energy and what can be done.”

Critical to driving technological change at National Grid, says Karaboutis, has been the openness of the executive committee, led by CEO John Pettigrew – its willingness to look ahead, albeit “with huge respect for its separate entities and regulators”.

Particularly notable has been a commitment to recently setting up its venture capital team in California’s Silicon Valley, as well as two digital innovation labs, one on either side of the pond, at Warwick and in Massachusetts.

The digital labs are charged with bringing in new technology and working on use cases identified by the business, to see if they can answer questions or provide fresh insights on issues such as customer engagement, asset management and distributed energy services.

Additionally, the venture capital team brings innovation to existing components of the business, such as engineering. It looks into new ideas, for example around battery technology or new opportunities for the cloud.

A lot of this Californian activity can then land in the US and UK digital labs, which monitor and apply it to business problems. It all adds up to a compelling partnership, says Karaboutis, and one that is already paying dividends.

Yet being agile enough to innovate and embrace constantly changing opportunities and needs can be extremely demanding when combined with running any utility, let alone a gargantuan, global one. Karaboutis’ answer is: “You never lose sight of the basics – the 360° view of the business and the needs and the opportunities.

“We start from a position of safety, safety, safety, never-to-be-compromised security, and not interrupting what we need to do for our consumers. That is the cornerstone.

“Then we look at the next thing we need to do to drive more of that, and efficiency and customer satisfaction. And then we take a very measured approach – and it’s never IT’s or the digital team’s alone – it’s always with the business in mind, it’s always a partnership.

“I always say you have to have a North Star. And then you say ‘where are we today, what is the right path, and at what pace?’. You need to ensure that you’re taking the right amount of risk – and never too much.”

This article first appeared in quarterly publication Flex, a sister title to Utility Week. To view the whole first issue click here, or download the pdf:

Flex October 2018