Fortnightly speaks with William Johnson, CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority, about managing the country’s biggest government-owned power supplier.
Electrifying the Android generation.
My pre-teen son has been lobbying for a wireless phone. But as steadfast as my wife and I have been in refusing, he’s been tenacious in trying every possible argument. Recently we had a conversation that went something like this:
“Dad, when did you get your first computer?”
“Um, I think it was 1981. I was a freshman in high school.”
“Did a lot of kids have computers?”
“Almost nobody did. Why?”
“Just curious. When did you get your first cell phone?”
“Sometime in the mid-1990s.”
“Did a lot of people have cell phones at that time?”
“Nope. Mostly it was just business people who had to travel.”
“OK. You know, Dad, almost everybody in my grade has a cell phone. All my friends do.”
I had to admire my son’s creativity. He knew that if he began by saying, “All my friends have cell phones,” I would’ve said, “They’re not my kids.” So instead he cleverly pointed out that all my life I’ve been near the front of the technology curve, which has proved to be important for my career. He left me to reach the logical conclusion: if I want him to have a comparable chance at success, then I should allow him to be at the front of the curve too, or at least not woefully behind.
Of course, his argument didn’t hold water, because I never used my cell phone for socializing. It was strictly for business. And for that matter my first computer wasn’t a gaming machine; I used it to learn BASIC programming code (admittedly for creating games). But my son’s point is nevertheless instructive—and not just for parents, but also for leaders in the utility industry. Namely, technology is a powerful catalyst for change. Those who don’t embrace new technologies will get left behind when the world changes around them. This is true across generations and across industries.
At the same time, however, the telecom revolution offers a cautionary lesson about what motivates consumers and how it translates into business opportunities.
Fun and Profit
Young people today live in a different world than the one we knew when we were kids. Even so, fundamental motivations haven’t changed for at least 50 years— i.e., young people are most interested in having fun with their friends, and in figuring out how to succeed in the world.
This is an important point for utilities and regulators to consider as they develop their technology strategies.
Industry leaders seem to be counting on the next generation of utility customers to embrace fundamental changes in utility service. The argument goes like this: Today’s kids love technology. They think nothing of downloading apps to their smart phones and spending hours exchanging text messages with their friends. Surely, then, the next generation of utility customers will use fancy home energy-management applications to make behavioral decisions that maximize the potential of smart metering and dynamic pricing, even if the old generation won’t.