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Digitization in Field Workforce Management-A Shift from Legacy Solutions to Design Thinking

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The maniacal focus on customer experience is not revolutionary anymore; it's been a while that it got established as a disrupting key to innovation. As companies are increasingly aspiring to deliver customer-centric solutions, digital transformations have become the norm in the industry.  

The early birds in this regard are the organizations in the banking, insurance, and health care sector. They have set benchmarks with their cutting-edge digital solutions. But what about the Utility industry? Where does it stand in terms of digital solutions? As per an article published by the Mckinsey Group and the Company, the Utility sector is one of the lagging sectors if the disruptive value of their digital solutions is compared with that of other sectors.

Focusing on internal customer (employees) experience

No industry can indeed refrain from digitization, and the utility sector is also striding. While some utilities have just dabbled in digital transformation, there, a few forward-thinking companies have even deployed innovative digital solutions by using augmented reality. But in general, how the utility industry at large, can enact technology changes to disrupt and achieve an effective digital transformation?

As mentioned above there is nothing revolutionary about focusing on the customer experience, everyone is doing that religiously. Thus, to disrupt and innovate with technology, utilities can focus on their internal customers' experience, i.e the employees (the field workforce).

For promoting a boast in service quality, utilities rely on the productivity and efficiency of their field workers. So, for them, the center of focus for digital interventions is Workforce Management, and this further roots out to key areas such as organizational and cultural transformation, streamlining of field operations, and improvement in asset management.

Barriers to digital in utility sector

Implementing digitization in workforce management is not as simple as it sounds because barriers to digital are deep-rooted in the legacy culture of the Utility sector.

The utility sector is already a late adopter of new technologies, and while it works on its digital ambition it can't apply the same mindset that it holds towards managing its physical utility assets. They need to focus on the scalability and agility of the solutions and get rid of their aging, legacy software systems, which they implemented expecting them to run for decades.

Taking Full Advantage of Digital Solutions

Applicability of the digital solutions is another key challenge. The majority of utilities do have digital solutions in place to help their field workforce do their jobs better. But if these solutions are developed without understanding what field jobs or operations actually entail, then turbocharging the intended digital transformation will be a difficulty.  

What the sector needs to avoid is pushing off-the-shelf applications from the center out to the field. Companies very often do that, believing that these applications will help the field employees improve their productivity. However, for the end-users, i.e field workers these applications are yet another half-baked solution that don't create any substantial difference, rather simply tweak the process or paperwork here and there.

Who would best know about the challenges of field operations or the difficulties in the execution of field services? It's the field workforce itself! The field employees are seasoned professionals who are handling the operations at the ground level.

They have the contextual insights, deep expertise, and first-hand knowledge. So, when a field tool or application is being designed and developed for them, shouldn't they, being the end-users, made involved in the development project?

This is where design thinking should come into the loop. Digital solutions built with design thinking can dramatically improve the efficiency of the field workforce, as these solutions are more human-centric and useful in tackling the operational challenges that are under-defined.

A Shift to Design Thinking

Design thinking ensures that while digitizing its field processes or while designing or customizing tools for this purpose, utilities will empathize with the needs and challenges faced by the field workforce. Afterall, the purpose is not to design just a solution, but to come up with an empathic solution that the field workforce will truly want and love to use.

Another matter of concern is that 33 percent of the utility workforce is above the age of 53, while only 19% is under 32, as quoted by the CEWD survey report ‘Gaps in the Energy Workforce Pipeline’. An aging workforce's equation of comfort with new-age technologies is a matter of consideration.

But a more serious concern here is that the retirement of legacy-employees can lead to the loss of critical business knowledge that has been curated through years of on-the-job experience. To avoid running into this risk, utilities need to have in place a streamlined process for capturing and documenting the operational knowledge of the legacy employees. This will generate a vast pool of information which can be constructively used to design future digital solutions.   

Digital Workforce-How to Make it Happen in the Utility Sector?

Utilities need to adopt a methodical approach as they plan to go digital regarding workforce management. A sudden and exponential leap into digitization can render the risks of failure. To raise the odds of success, the standard way out is to keep forwarding with progressive steps of improvement, while realizing the challenges, strengths, grey areas, and repercussions.

In order to bring in digitization in workforce management and take up the subsequent journey of improvement, organizations must identify where they are on the path to full digitization. This can be segregated into four stages:

Legacy solutions

Manual disconnected processes, decentralized data management and decision making, dependencies on manual interventions for work order management, paper-work culture, etc. are legacy practices of the utility sector.

Standardized operations

Use of simple tracking tools and spreadsheet-based IT solutions for creating standardized task guidelines.

Optimized operations

Use of computerized software to bring in automation and dynamicity in the processes. For instance automation in scheduling and dispatching processes, wherein tasks can be automatically scheduled to the nearest available technicians with the right skillset. Dynamic scheduling in real-time shortens the response time and also reduces unnecessary travel. Another much-employed optimized practice is the facilitation of real-time communication using electronic methods over hand-held smart mobile devices.

Digital workforce

Digitizing the status quo like converting a hardcopy of paper into a digital copy, and making it accessible over tablets and phones is not a functional solution. Utilities need to have a more holistic approach, which can be achieved with the aid of FSM (Field service management) software suites designed by applying the principles of design-thinking and powered with cutting edge technologies like IoT, AI, automation, augmented reality, etc.

Such software suites enable the utilities to reinvent their entire business processes, and build a full-fledged digital workforce. A digital workforce that is increasingly empowered to drive efficiency from beginning to end; focus on high-value tasks; discard wandering, repetitive, and risky practices; and slash operational costs.

The amalgamation of design thinking and technologies like AI, IoT, not just upgrade an FSM (field service management software) with features that are more relevant to the needs of field employees, but also empower the utilities to put an end to the very common legacy practice of manual channeling of information that causes information delay.

The takeaways

Digitization in workforce management is the need of the hour for the utility industry as this way it can leverage the capacities of new-age technologies that dramatically improve the efficiency of the field workforce. While the customer experience has become the buzzword, and the whole service industry has dedicated its digital inclination towards creating the best of experience for its customers, there the utility industry, can disrupt by redirecting the focus of its digital transformation towards employee experience.

The utility industry can be a late adopter of technological practices, but it can still make a winning move by using cutting-edge technologies to build employee-centric digital solutions so that the team's as well as service performance, efficiency, and productivity can be upgraded from the ground level. While enacting their digital  innovations, utilities can enhance the effectiveness of their digital solutions by incorporating design thinking.


Bhupendra Choudhary's picture

Thank Bhupendra for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 25, 2021

 While some utilities have just dabbled in digital transformation, there, a few forward-thinking companies have even deployed innovative digital solutions by using augmented reality. But in general, how the utility industry at large, can enact technology changes to disrupt and achieve an effective digital transformation?

The utility industry, fair or not, has been plagued with a reputation of being inertia-filled, slow to move. I think we're finally seeing that start to change, but while there still is some of that aspect to it-- how do you think is the best way for those advocating for change from within utilities to get buy-in from the key decision makers in their organizations? 

Bhupendra Choudhary's picture
Bhupendra Choudhary on Jan 27, 2021

Most times you will see a lack of alignment between the business side and IT teams. In the Utility sector, business teams do not really consider IT implementations as a part of their core revenue generating initiatives. To overcome this, IT teams need to improve in chunks and then quantify the ROI of those implementations. That would boost the confidence of the business teams and push them to create a more inclusive culture in decision-making processes. 

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