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Technology Corridor

Mobile workers provide the next opportunity for utility productivity gains.
Fortnightly Magazine - March 2005

lurking deep within their IT. Innovations in IT are accelerating, but so are the population's capacity to absorb those changes. And in the past four years, the world has collected more information than it did in the preceding 40 millennia. Ninety-three percent of it is in a digital format-some 53 billion gigabytes.

Despite this sea of data, information is valuable. But only if it is used in innovative ways. Utilities are sitting on mountains of information and it continues to grow. The time is right to think about how to tap into that information. It's a choice between riding on top of a wave and being rolled over by it.

A case in point is field operations. Utilities recognize that technology is only one part of the overall solution that will make the field organization successful. Major challenges exist in terms of gaining hard-won acceptance from field workers, in changing the roles of supervisors, in leveraging the maximum value from existing investments in enterprise systems, and in seamlessly integrating the new enabling technologies with their business processes.

Falling Short in the Field: Complex Obstacles, Ineffectual Solutions

Mobile Field Work Management (FWM) systems-using mobile computing devices, wireless networks, and new sophisticated scheduling algorithms-have long been regarded as the key to solving some of these problems. Even when well implemented, traditional FWM solutions have addressed some, but not all, of the problems faced by mobile field workers.

Realistically, FWM systems have continued to require high capital expense, relying on proprietary software and technology, delivering unreliable mobile connectivity and access to critical information, and limited integration with critical back-office systems.

However, the landscape is changing. Mobile laptops, handheld devices, and high-speed network costs have plummeted, and we have seen substantial technological innovations. Across numerous utility projects, the right mix of mobile computing and wireless technologies does deliver significant benefits, transforming business processes and technically enabling the field force.

We have found that most utilities can gain from 60 to 90 minutes of additional time each day per field force employee and increase their productivity by 10 to 20 percent. For a utility company with 1,000 field workers, these savings would add an additional $20 million annually to the bottom line.

The Convergence of People, Systems, and Communications

Field force transformation services can drive improved productivity and efficiency across field operations by taking a distinctly "cross functional" business focus. It is critical to align field force, supervisor, and scheduler behavior with the utility company's strategic goals. This leverages current investments in existing work management, asset management, GIS, and back office systems, while providing real-time access for the field worker. But ultimately, gaining efficiencies will require enabling both field workers and contractors using the same systems and business processes.

Work is managed, scheduled, and viewed wherever possible using one set of systems and processes across the organization, using a formal and centralized work and resource management organization while the role of the supervisor changes dramatically as mobile technologies and scheduling are automated, enabling the supervisor to manage and facilitate crews in the field, rather than schedule them