Heather Gardner shines a light on analytics and the energy industry

By | 5 minute read | January 20, 2020

This story is part of Analytics Heroes, a series of profiles on leaders transforming the future of business analytics.

With a final touchup from hair and makeup, Heather Gardner sits up straight, smiles, and is ready to begin her filmed interview at Data and AI forum in Miami, Florida. Heather is a business analyst at Alliant Energy, a Wisconsin-based utility company that serves more than 965,000 electric and 415,000 gas customers. Heather lights up when she begins discussing her career. “We work with groups like finance, HR, and operations, to create reports that save costs,” she says. But her reports also help Alliant Energy serve its end-user energy consumers, literally helping them keep their lights on. Heather says, “We’re able to deliver reporting that goes to our field staff, alerting them to things like transformer batteries that need to be replaced, so our customers never lose power.”

Heather’s efforts align with Alliant Energy’s strategic plan. One element is growth: serving the increasing demand for electric and gas usage, while expanding the company’s portfolio of clean and renewable energy. Another element is optimization: providing efficient service through modernization of the power grid and upgrades to the gas distribution system. It also includes maintenance and diversification of the company’s power-generation fleet, which includes the electric-generating facilities that operate on a diverse mix of fuels, such as coal, natural gas, and renewable resources. With the assistance of business intelligence, analysts are working to reduce the carbon footprint. For example, at Alliant Energy, Heather and her colleagues are leveraging BI data to eliminate coal from the company’s energy portfolio by 2050.

Championing user adoption

“I love helping people get all the answers they need,” says Heather. Alliant Energy uses IBM Cognos Analytics, an AI-infused business intelligence solution to pull data from multiple sources into easy-to-read dashboards. One of Heather’s goals includes onboarding new employees to Alliant Energy’s data-driven culture. “A big part of my job right now is user adoption. I meet with employees to get them started down the right path [and] excited about using Cognos Analytics.”

Heather’s success depends on frequent communication with analytics users. “We have daily touchpoints where I meet with internal customers to talk about their analytics needs, and make sure they’re delivering good information in their reports.”

When asked about the biggest satisfaction in her role, Heather lights up with a smile. “When I help someone deliver a dashboard, and they walk into a meeting and show it to their internal customers, and it’s spot-on, that is such a great feeling.” Heather continues, “When I empower my internal customers to be the absolute best they can be, that’s my greatest achievement.”

Helping long-time analytics users be more agile

Heather wants to ensure her company is getting the most out of every new version of Cognos. “Alliant Energy has been using Cognos for more than 20 years,” says Heather. “The upgrades really make a difference, so we wanted a partner to help us manage that process.” One of the largest IBM analytics business partners is PMSquare, which assists clients in education, upgrading and reaching their business goals. Says Heather, “We started working with PMSquare, who helped us learn not only how to upgrade properly, but also how to manage our data. They also help us keep our skill sets current as we move to a more agile way of working.”

Prioritizing customer requests for example, has become a mainstay in the agile process. Says Heather, “PMSquare helped us develop an analytics workflow that allows us to evaluate and prioritize requests by walking each customer through a set of questions. From there, we created a dashboard to manage our own workload.” By doing so, Heather and her team are able to streamline and expedite their entire process to get the right results in a fraction of the time.

Empowering users at every level of the organization

“I’d like to see every department using Cognos every minute of every day,” Heather says with a laugh. “We’ve seen a lot of small wins by just teaching our internal customers how to upload their data and start using the tools.” The big wins include providing the senior executive team with an employee travel dashboard. “With this implementation, the executive team was able to analyze travel by category, which helped them understand where they were spending the most money,” says Heather. “From there, they were able to put policies in place that allowed them to optimize the travel budget.”

But it’s not just senior management who benefits. “I’m most impressed with things that we do from the bottom up,” says Heather. These customers include internal users of IBM Maximo in asset management and operations functions. “We can connect them directly to the data that matters to them, so they can pull their own tables and create data modules,” she says. “It’s an exciting way to use the analytics tools, which have been super successful.”

Scaling for the future

What’s Heather looking forward to? “Personally, I’m most excited about the new forecasting features of Cognos Analytics,” Heather explains that with Cognos, she can show people the data as it is, but they want to understand how it will change in the future, and how the choices they make can influence that data. And that makes a big difference in making better decisions.

Those features will open the door to using IBM Planning Analytics powered by TM1 says Heather. “That’s our stretch goal, and I’m very excited to reach it.”

Being an Analytics Hero: a strong vision and strong partners

To Heather, being an Analytics Hero is all about having customers who believe in her ability to constantly deliver. “When people feel they can turn to me for all of their questions, and I can provide the answers and help they need, that’s when I feel like a hero,” she says. In addition to her own hard work, Heather gives credit to others involved: “The training and tools provided by IBM and by PMSquare have been a huge help. They’re always there to help me get my data environment tuned, and especially to celebrate every success. They helped me become a hero.”

Accelerate your journey to AI.