The future of building automation and energy management

Virginie Milhaud, Schneider Electric’s new EcoXpert Program Director, on the trends that shape the future of building automation and energy management – and the digital transformation of the EcoXpert partner program of which she’s the new global lead.

In 2020, Schneider Electric’s Nicolas Windpassinger explained how the pandemic speeded up digital transformation in businesses across the globe. His analysis and advice were, among others, addressed to the many types of companies one can find in business partner ecosystems. 

Highly disruptive events impact all players in a partner ecosystem, changing the dynamics and needs among participants, regardless of how much their businesses might have in common. The EcoXpert program/ecosystem has over 4,000 partners certified in several areas of building automation and energy management and the implementation arms of Schneider Electric’s IoT-enabled open platform EcoStruxure and/or Wiser platform (depending on certification).

So you can imagine how impactful the pandemic was for the global program and its many partners. Moreover, the pandemic affected the teams responsible for serving EcoXperts and their clients, and its consequences had to be incorporated in the digital transformation strategy moving ahead.

In this interview, Virginie Milhaud, the new global lead for the EcoXpert program, shares the lessons learned, actions taken, and plans/tools ahead in the context of the program and its many stakeholders.

These are partially related to the pandemic and its accelerating effect on digitalization. Yet, there are many other, sometimes coupled, market dynamics and ample changing customer demands which started to evolve long before COVID-19 existed and apply to the entire market.

EcoXperts were speeding up their digital transformation efforts for several years, regardless of their specific activities in the broad field of building automation and energy management. Yet, as Nicolas, who has moved on to a new leadership role in Schneider Electric’s Digital Customer Experience team, explained in an older interview, it happened gradually from the edge of their business, with some digitizing and transforming faster than others.

So, time for a look at the current and future situation with Virginie, including the significant trends impacting building automation and energy management and new ways in which the ecosystem is digitally – empowered.

Looking back and ahead – the global and local dynamics of EcoXpert

Virginie, thank you for your time, and congratulations for being recognized in the CRN 2021 Channel Chiefs list as a prominent channel leader who has demonstrated outstanding leadership. You became the lead of EcoXpert in November 2020 but have been active in the program for quite some time. Can you tell us more?

Virginie Milhaud: I started to work on the EcoXpert program in 2013, supporting the global team with the development and deployment of both internal and partner-facing digital tools, governance, and reporting.

Virginie Milhaud, EcoXpert Program Manager at Schneider Electric
Virginie Milhaud, EcoXpert Program Manager at Schneider Electric

EcoXpert was launched only two years before my arrival, in 2011. So, it was quite an enriching journey with various responsibilities in helping build, expand and grow the program over time. I also had the opportunity to work with the EcoXpert badge owners (editor’s note: the people responsible for the certifications that partners can get through the program) and the EcoXpert team in several countries.

In 2017 I became EcoXpert program manager for France, responsible for the local partner network, consisting of around 200 companies. In this marketing role, I was in charge of, among others, managing the partner certifications, recruiting new EcoXperts, developing the marketing plan, engaging and animating partners with events and digital touchpoints, enhancing the partner journey, and making sure partners were always up-to-date.

And since the end of last year, I’m indeed back on the global team. As my previous mission enabled me to develop my experience as a channel manager and validate the program’s efficiency and the robustness of what we implement globally, I can drive future developments with global and local needs in mind.

Staying close to partners and clients

How do you see the local aspects of EcoXpert evolve after the pandemic as we live in a different world? In our last interview, the previous EcoXpert lead, Nicolas Windpassinger, pointed out that the differences between global and local needs are relatively small and related to the markets’ maturity and speed, whereas the driving trends are similar. How do you see that going forward? More focus on the regional dimension?

Virginie Milhaud: The common global trend whereby companies want better-integrated building automation and energy management systems and architectures, no matter where they are, hasn’t gone. And our EcoXpert ecosystem remains one of multi-expertise partners with the same skills and standards in each country.

On the other hand, it’s clear that with the measures taken to deal with the pandemic and the stimuli and actions for economic recovery, it’s essential to stay even closer to our local partners and clients.

As our CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire wrote, trust in local people is the foundation of the most efficient way to deal with the unexpected. It requires enabling local teams to define local solutions swiftly. And our partners are essential here.

We want to become even more robust regarding the content, offers, and animation for our local partners. We also want to empower our channel managers more, among others, through regular update calls with the badge owners.

This way, we are sure we provide the partners everything they need in the proper format: offerings, news on coming solutions, updates on the portfolio, etcetera. In addition, our partners need to have the tools and information to stay connected with their ecosystem, our experts, and the broader global community.

But we also want country teams to have a degree of local control over the globally managed program since, in the end, they have their approach towards their local markets.

The intent to strengthen the local focus started before the pandemic and is just one of many initiatives and plans in the overall strategy for the following years.  

Showing business resilience in 2020 – a matter of teamwork

Before looking at the critical building automation and energy management trends, let’s go back to 2020. It was a challenging year, but as you say on your CRN 2021 Channel Chiefs Detail page, despite the difficult times, you achieved a growth of 25 percent on building management systems through EcoXpert, to cite one achievement. So how did EcoXpert evolve and perform last year?

Virginie Milhaud:  Sure, first of all, I want to emphasize that Schneider Electric and indeed the EcoXpert network showed strong business resilience and quickly adapted to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

For starters, it’s essential to realize that Schneider Electric’s business is a lot about business resiliency. It comes back in our vision, our goals, and the importance of digital to position ourselves in the market, hand in hand with the sustainability agenda governments were already pushing and now focus even more on.  

So, business resiliency is part of our DNA and the way we distinguish ourselves. In addition, the intensive use of digital platforms and our core business capabilities proved to be an additional competitive advantage in a tough year where digital was omnipresent. As a result, Schneider Electric is one of the only companies that saw its share price almost double in 2020.

Secondly, the EcoXpert program is quite selective in terms of the capacities and vision of certified EcoXperts. It reflects what we want to accomplish and consists of partners that we recognize because they can offer our digital solutions to their clients in practice at all times. So, EcoXpert – the partners and team – showed that with Schneider Electric, they can offer the best-in-class digital solutions needed in building automation and energy management, also in these challenging times.

Switching to digital partner engagement in record time

You already had several digital tools for partners, but suddenly it wasn’t possible to engage with them in a ‘physical’ way anymore. How big a challenge was that?

Virginie Milhaud: This is one of the areas where our EcoXpert team was very resilient. Despite the pandemic and move to digital engagement, we were on target to recruit newly certified partners across the different badges.

We managed to entirely switch to digital engagement with our new and existing partners on all levels. To give you an idea: in just a few months, we redefined our approach resulting in over 400 webinars with approximately 30,000 participants.

The events and animation plans we had at a local level and a global level all could be delivered digitally, without any impact on the topics, product launches, etc., we had planned. The ability to do all this so quickly again shows the resilience of the team and the partners.

New certifications and specializations for the age of multi-expertise in building automation and energy management

You even managed to launch several new certifications and review some existing ones, as we’ll cover in separate articles and interviews.

Virginie Milhaud: Indeed. EcoXpert was already the main multi-expertise partner program in the industry, addressing so many different technologies and domains.

The expansion of the program we continued in 2020 goes hand in hand with the trends we see happening in the market, the offer side and the channel side. So, to realize our vision and help our partners help their customers, we continue to evolve.

We launched several new certifications and specializations last year but also broadened the scope. Today, the program covers a very exhaustive list of application domains, from home automation to building automation, covering access control, electro-mechanical, energy management, high and medium voltage, you name it. Essentially everything that is linked with building automation and power management.

Moreover, on top of certifications for all these domains, we have differentiated offers and specializations for application domains where specific technical and business expertise is needed.

You previously wrote about some we launched in 2019, such as Retail (facilities), Real Estate, and Healthcare. In 2020 we, among others, added a specialization for Life Sciences.

On the certifications level, we launched three new badges in Power Distribution & Management alone: ‘Digital Panel,’ ‘LV Panel,’ and ‘MV Panel.’

Part of the success is that we managed to move from a rather channel-oriented program, mainly targeting system integrators, to a broader ecosystem including contractors, panel builders, etc. We look most of all at partners’ technical capacities and business competencies rather than their original channel.

We’re now at a level where the EcoXpert program has a competitive advantage as the industry’s first multi-expertise program with a network of partners across so many complementary application domains and markets.

The future of building automation and energy management: mass electrification and digitization of power and buildings

The broadening scope over the years – and the overall changes of EcoXpert – are driven by the market trends. Can you take us through the major ones in building automation and energy management that explain the strategy from now on and the mentioned evolutions in 2020?

Virginie Milhaud: Looking at the market evolution and megatrends that shape what our partners and their customers (will) expect and the way we want to drive the EcoXpert program, we identify three major points, each with various components, consequences, and actions.

A first major overarching trend is the acceleration and growing demand for mass electrification and digitization of power and buildings.

The solutions we offer to digitize leverage several technologies such as IoT technologies, big data, and artificial intelligence come in here. So, it’s our responsibility to ensure that EcoXperts can embrace these technologies and the solutions that we build upon them with technology partners. So, that is one driver of the strategy. On the level of electrification, we see a real push in the market to realize the vision of a new electric world with zero carbon footprint.

The pandemic has impacted both the accelerating need for digitization and evolution towards electrification. The fact that many governments push the sustainability agenda more than before as part of plans to reboot their economy is a vital aspect of this impact. Needless to say that all this positively influences demand for our technology and the business of EcoXperts.

On the level of electrification, we see a real push in the market to realize the vision of a new electric world with zero carbon footprint (Virginie Milhaud)

A final element in mass electrification and digitization of power and buildings is the mentioned global trend whereby companies want better-integrated systems. It is why we have a multi-expertise program and networks with partners who can offer integrated solutions in so many areas, to begin with. It continues to drive EcoXpert and the strategy and partnerships of Schneider Electric in general.

This continuously growing need for interoperability and the advent of new disruptive technologies such as building information modeling impact the future of partners who want to differentiate them and go for integration and multi-expertise.

Buildings and facilities don’t stand on their own and need to connect with different domains, applications, technologies. The traditional silos between various areas of expertise disappear with increasing convergence. It’s a shift to a stakeholder-centric model linking building technologies, energy and electricity, novel and even disruptive applications, and all the communities and environments within which buildings reside. Examples include integration with the smart grid and smart city applications.

Editor’s note: An example is how Schneider Electric brought the KNX standard to the next level, whereby opening up to integrate solutions with smart systems and communities is the road ahead as Dusan Janjic and Howard Jiang explain in this interview on SpaceLogic KNX.

Partners have a tremendous opportunity here, also in niche applications. However, to get there in a profitable way, mastering new technologies, solutions, and integrating is vital, regardless of the domain and the ecosystems working on complex projects.

Editor’s note: So-called Master-level EcoXperts often show the way here, as you can read in this interview with building systems integrator Wadsworth Solutions.  

Virginie Milhaud: As you can see, the first key trend, mass electrification and digitization of power and buildings encompasses quite a bit. Yet, to summarize, it’s most of all about:

  • the technologies we offer and customers now want for integrated solutions (IoT, big data, AI, etc.) where we need to help partners,
  • the new electric world with zero carbon footprint that is a clear opportunity for EcoXperts,
  • the impact of COVID-19, among others from a stimulus perspective that shapes the direction of the market,
  • the ongoing push towards interoperability between building automation, energy management, and other systems,
  • incorporating disruptive technologies such as BIM, which clients increasingly want, among others, to realize these goals and open the door for new possibilities.