Mobile workers provide the next opportunity for utility productivity gains.
Field workers at many electric, gas, and water utilities have not realized the benefits of their company's substantial investments in office-based information technology (IT) systems for work and asset management, customer service and billing, geographic information systems, mobile technologies, or even e-mail. When mobile field workers do not have access to these systems, they continue to rely on systems that are paper-based or offline, accessing critical information only when they are at the service center or corporate yard.
Without access to the information held in these systems, field workers and the business they support often face needless challenges, including poor coordination and communication with the field. Field staff cannot access needed data, and supervisors cannot easily coordinate their work and that of contractors. Trips back to the base or home office become necessary to collect work orders and documentation, and to return job completion details and time sheets.
The growing challenge for the chief information officer (CIO) is to have a detailed understanding of the requirements of the business at the front line. The work of the field staff and others in the organization performing basic operations is where innovation can reap the greatest reward for the business. In this environment, a CIO with an innovative outlook shared by the rest of the company is in a position to become a value creator. This is a significant departure from the conventional view of the CIO as a mere steward of assets.
In internal discussions, CIOs have indicated that there is a real opportunity within today's IT organizations for people with strong business understanding, coupled with IT capability, and strong leadership skills, to drive an enterprise into unchartered territories. In a recently conducted informal survey among IT executives revealed that most felt that the chief skills they needed to build were not in technical know-how but in leadership and in understanding the business.
Indeed, to understand the business, organizations need to have a shared language. Within utilities, there is evidence of poor dialogue between the business analysts, the policy-makers and the IT people. The technical people speak technology and the business people speak business. Until they have a common lexicon, they will be like ships passing in the night.
In terms of the external factors, the regulatory situation can either nourish or stifle innovation, "Currently, the regulatory environments globally are inclined not to provide much incentive to innovate. The way a utility thinks of value needs to be aligned with the regulatory environment-then it needs to pick its spot. For instance, there are huge opportunities to drive value in customer service in regulated environments through reliability of response to customers."
In deregulated operations there are abundant opportunities to combine products to create new ones. For example, in competitive supply there are opportunities hidden amid the huge data sets held by each layer in the sector, for development of niche energy products for commercial and household users.
Meanwhile, statistics provide some motivation for utilities to seek the opportunities that may be 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 in the service center.
At the same time field workers become multi-skilled. Crews can begin to handle all types of work, based on location, proximity, and skills rather than specific work types. More efficient processes that minimize handoffs are developed.
Field and office workers have real-time access to work schedules and information necessary to complete their jobs, whether they are accessing that information remotely through a wireless laptop in the truck or through a connected office based computer.
Paper is eliminated wherever possible, and work scheduled and updated in real time. Field force enablement tools need to support both disconnected and connected operations for the field organization at all times. These capabilities will continue to expand as wireless networks and connectivity evolve to support devices and applications of all kinds, rather than proprietary tools.
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