Anomalous as GMER's systems may seem in an industry not famed for cutting-edge technology, they represent the look of things to come, according to Steve Drenker, manager of information systems and telecommunications for Electric Power Research Institute, in Palo Alto, Calif. "All the systems developed for the utility industry over the last 30 years are very suitable for a regulated industry, where you have one product with one price year-round," says Drenker. "Utilities created these huge, monolithic back-office solutions. Now requirements have changed, and they have to deploy technology in a more modular fashion. In the old way, it could take years of effort and millions of dollars to change a system. In today's world, systems evolve daily."

This technology-enforced need for speed has had an effect on Hyde, who has modified his managerial and communication style to exemplify the new business culture.

The printed memorandums of his GMP days are practically extinct; instead, he zips off E-mails that, in GMER's flat organizational structure, receive the same attention as everyone else's. The geographical dispersion of GMER's vendors and contractors has forced this once-complacent PC user to become proficient with the Internet. Even his face-to-face communications have grown more frequent and less formal. At GMP, Hartley says, "I'd get a phone call from one of Doug's assistants: 'Mr. Hartley, Mr. Hyde would like to make an appointment to see you.' Now Doug just pops into my office whenever he feels like it."

Still, Hyde had intended to put his stamp on GMER's culture, but, he says, he got too busy and forgot about it. In the meantime, the 40 GMER employees, 28 of whom were liberated from the suit-and-tie culture of GMP, started showing up in casual wear. When someone threatened Hyde's tie with a pair of scissors, he traded the suits for vests and khakis.

Hyde's gut instinct in managing GMER was to try to replicate the "sometimes illusory" control he felt as the head of a traditional utility, where the business was electricity--period--and where he spent half as much time in front of a computer. Yet he feels an almost intoxicating exhilaration in the loss of command. "In exchange, you get lots of creative interactivity. I really like that," he says.

Days before the new year, Hyde and his staff have just returned from a two-day planning retreat. He walks out of his office and into a group hug--organized to cheer up an employee who had been left behind to fix a last-minute problem with GMER's extranet. "I would," Hyde says, "and did, trade a lot to be part of that kind of spirit."

Emily Esterson is an associate editor at Inc. Technology.

Power Tools: GMER's Secret Weapons

GMER's operations are powered by two critical technologies: an extranet and a data warehouse.

Extranets, which are increasingly used for intercompany collaboration, marry the benefits of Internet technology with the security of a private network. Participants keep their data safely behind a firewall, but authorized partners can access it over the Internet. Essentially, it's like living in a gated community where all the residents have keys to one another's houses.

GMER trades information with nearly two-dozen vendors over a combination of secured Internet connections and leased lines. The company can retrieve data, such as a customer's electricity-usage history or billing information, from servers located behind its contractors' firewalls, generally by using a password. (In some cases, the company uses direct connections via frame relay instead.)

Data warehouses are electronic-storage facilities where vast amounts of information are captured, housed, and sorted for later analysis.

At GMER, detailed information on customers--including the magazines they subscribe to and the appliances they own--is automatically captured through the company's Web site and call centers and is transferred over the Internet to a mainframe-based database maintained by an outside contractor. That database is also the repository for customer data culled from purchased lists and assorted market research.

GMER employees access the data warehouse over an extranet. Using sets of detailed questions, they can then drill down into the data to create lists of customers matching specific criteria or submit the information to proprietary software that allows them to examine the results from different viewpoints. GMER applies the information it extracts to hone its customer profiles for marketing efforts, but the company will soon use the data to customize its products. --Emily Esterson