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Uberization of the field force management in utilities

Pinaki Bhattacharya's picture
Delivery Project Executive IBM

Managing utility clients for 14 years, across America and Europe. Experience spans across Customer Information Systems, Transmission, System Operations and Distribution for electricity and gas. 

  • Member since 2021
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  • Jan 18, 2022
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When one brings up field force management, the picture that comes to mind is large new tech companies that depend on customer centricity for the service delivery. The companies such as Uber, Ola, Amazon have pioneered how customer is offered and how they consume the service in their field of businesses. The approach they have taken is to provide the platform for customer and service provider interaction and provide the incentives to drive the behaviour of the stakeholders, in the transaction, to optimise the traditional management metrics such as cost, speed, accuracy, etc.

For instance, Uber’s approach to provide the same localised map to both driver (i.e. field force agent) and customer to find each other is far more superior in terms of customer experience and efficiency than asking the customer to follow a centralised route to find the driver. And this approach has worked phenomenally well.

However, to be honest, Uber, and Ola are not the only ones that work with large field forces. For instance, every utility company needs a large skill diverse field work force in their asset management and service management departments. Typical work profile of these field workers involve visit to customer premise, perform asset audits, replacement of faulty equipment. For the delivery of each service type,  a careful matching of skilled individual and job type are required for the favourable customer outcome. Furthermore, many of these services are delivered over geographically spread locations that means cost of transportation of this workforce makes for the significant portion of the cost of operation.

Field force Management Current outlook

Now, for a typical utilities operator, the delivery of service is driven through a tech stack that evolved over decades. Typically, a layered stack with customer management systems at the core (typically in house with Cobol and C++ as technology stack) and strap on layers of service management and field force management software’s Like Salesforce, etc. Although, these solutions provide an extent of automation. However, nature of the solution mean series of friction points to emerge at the ground level resulting in suboptimal outcomes.

 

Uberized Field force Management

Now, in the context of friction points mentioned above, let's look at the the bottom-up approaches that could be employed by the energy utilities companies. The answer lies in the adoption of cross industry  solutions (i.e. learnings from the Uber’s. Ola’s of this world). Here is a one of the approaches that can be implemented to simulate the Uber’s model of matching supply and demand in the E&U context. The model eliminates the need of hierarchical processes of allocation and reconciliation by digitising it and empowering the field force to regulate the flow of jobs within the system.

 

Comparitive Analysis

Careful side by side analysis of the process flows of conventional way and Uberised process flow reveal that the new process simply eliminates the need for several steps through field force empowerment and E2E digitisation.

 

Conclusion

Field force in utilities comprises of workers who know their work inside out. By learning from cross industry trends, and adopting some of them to digitally transform experiences of field workers will help utilities make the right step change in terms of creating better employee experiences, and of productivity.  

Co-Author : Atul Parte is my co-author for this point of view. 

    

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 18, 2022

When implementing newfound changes in approach like this, I often wonder how the people it impacts directly will feel. While the management will obviously love the efficiency and accuracy that hopefully comes with this uberization, have you heard how the field workers respond? Are they likewise excited by the improved logistics, or is there any sort of internal pushback surrounding changing how things are done? 

Pinaki Bhattacharya's picture
Pinaki Bhattacharya on Feb 4, 2022

Matt, you touch upon a very important area. I will try to answer in two parts

 

(a) Advanced technology adoption, in general, has three categories of takers -  eager ones, neutral/ open minded ones, and the not-so-eager ones. My experience with utilities has been on similar lines.

 

(b) The good part I see in recent years is that companies are making a conscious effort to bring in the ‘subjects’ of technology adoption into the mainstream decision making/ solution design process via problem solving processes such as design thinking. This approach should help further help ease advanced technology adoption.

Paul Fratellone's picture
Paul Fratellone on Jan 18, 2022

Pinaki

Good material and insights. As you state, utility customers have very specific needs and the FSM workflow as shown in your comparative analysis table could be further expanded. Since meters are the cash register of the utility, FSM software that is metering-centric should prove to have an increased ROI. FSM software that can validate the installer has all the inventory needed for that day's work orders. Metering-centric FSM would know the number of 9S and 2S meters that are needed and how many transformers will be required for the instrument rated jobs. If the total does not meet the days work, alert the user to what devices are required.  FSM software should validate form compatibility upon the meter exchange. There are many such validations but generally, metering business rules need to be applied in the field before an error is made. I think FSM software needs to be device agnostic and render functionality on the approved "corporate mobile device" or tablet. FSM software is starting to migrate to voice commands. Many field technicians use PPE when performing a service, and it will be a great time saver to use voice commands versus taking off your PPE to click, type or swipe. 

Pinaki Bhattacharya's picture
Pinaki Bhattacharya on Feb 4, 2022

Paul

 

thank you. Apart from being device agnostic and incorporating command commands, I anticipate AI driven insights to play its part in future field service management software. It can potentially increase the success rate of jobs with various types of job related insights

 

Doug Houseman's picture
Doug Houseman on Jan 24, 2022

Within reason letting the workforce pick their own jobs is possible and can work. 

 

However some jobs are loved by no one, and so they go undone, if it is pick the ride (in Uber terms this job is a passenger with a rating of less than 1).

 

Having done this with a workforce almost 20 years ago, but with a scoring system, and aging jobs getting a higher score, with dispatch in the loop, so that crews are forced from time to time to take a job that needs to be completed. There are some areas in service territories that are unfortunately "no-go" zones that take arrangements with law enforcement before the crew can enter the area. There are also critical customers that need to be prioritized up. 

 

These are more than just "Ticket posted" sorts of issues that need coordination. Specific crews may have specific skills or equipment. In many cases it takes coordination of 2 or more crews to complete a ticket, and when you have engage a spot trimming crew - they may be in a separate system. 

 

The idea can work, I've done it - but the devil is in the details. 

Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Feb 2, 2022

Good points. The reality is that the traditional approach was followed because it was the only option at the time. Recent technical advances, such as cloud, containers, mobile, and social networking, enable new solutions to be built. They are typically much more effective than the older systems because they are build on technology foundations, with more capabilities and flexibility than the legacy systems. 

Pinaki Bhattacharya's picture
Pinaki Bhattacharya on Feb 4, 2022

Agreed Paul. Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds, bringing in lot of new capabilities. And will continue to do so transforming workflows across field service and other areas. 

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