This special interest group covers mobile technologies and approaches that are helping utilities do business today. 

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Mobility – What is Behind the Buzzword?

Matt Chwalowski's picture
Energy and Utilities Expert PA Consulting

Matt Chwalowski, Ph.D., is an energy and utilities expert with 20 years of combined management consulting in the energy and IT areas. He is with the Energy Business Transformation Practice at PA...

  • Member since 2000
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  • Jul 15, 2003
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Mobility Technologies – Looking at Business in New Ways
The profusion of wireless technologies and back-office integration to send and receive data across companies’ physical boundaries has been underway for several years. We now begin to consider how this data communications may change the basic way utilities conduct business. These enabling technologies include both hardware and software:
  • Hand-held devices – smart phones, PDAs, tablet computers, wearable computers, digital cameras, powerful back office servers
  • Software – easier to use and able to integrate operating systems to connect hardware tools with company back office systems, better capabilities to exchange data, development of wireless protocols

These technologies plus the Internet, coupled with competitive pressures, extend companies’ capabilities, quality of services, consistency, measurement of service levels and control unit costs and provide a real-time view of operations with preciseness that before was not previously possible.

Mobility technologies are not implemented for their own sake, but because they benefit customers (e.g. improved services or differentiated offerings) or shareholders (e.g. lower costs). Customers notice immediately the results of not having Mobility when they deal with companies that provide on-line banking, tracking of personal packages, bill paying, and retail ordering and compare customer service levels to those received from a utility- mainly the speed of service, the timeliness, the number of calls it took to resolve any issues, and how well a task was completed. Such comparisons force utilities to have to meet raised customer expectations driven by successful models in other service industries.

Higher customer service levels implicitly mean quality internal operations. PA Consulting Group’s experience with utilities and benchmarking suggests that Meter Service workers spend perhaps 35 percent of their daily shifts doing productive work – with limited Mobility; the rest of their time is wasted (crews have to wait, travel unnecessarily, the job data is inadequate, the reported problem is not found, or there are no correct parts). With full-blown Mobility, that 35 percent is estimated to jump to 60-70 percent!

Defining Mobility
What is Mobility? Let’s take a look at Fed Ex operations as an example. FedEx manages a constantly changing inventory of packages and pickups and deliveries to customers and gives customers the ability to find out the status and location of their deliveries at any instant. FedEx immediately conveys real-time information to their customers, available at all steps of the service- whether it’s the employee with the hand-held tracking device scanning a shipment or the customer on the Internet checking the status of that shipment.

FedEx developed a business model that is infused with integrated technology components that accompany and enable its business processes- most of which are managed by mobile workforces operating in the broadest imaginable geographic distribution networks. It is convenient to characterize such a company as being “Mobile” – a very efficient and purposeful movement of goods, services, people and data, managed by a flexible, mobile workforce. For these companies and their mobile employees, Mobility means that goods and services and their movements are always accompanied by an information component, a digital representation of an object or physical action. Finally, Mobility implies that there is an easy exchange of communication between employees, customers, and integrated application systems through wire and wireless connectivity. Mobility enables employee performance measurement; it provides useful employee feedback to identify operating issues; it is also a highly effective tool to manage seasonal or high turnover workforce and establish repeatable performance to customers. When Is a Utility Mobile Enough?
Does the mere fact that a utility has WMS, OMS, GIS, AM/FM and Field Force Automation make a utility mobile? Or, employees have hand-helds? How does a utility know that it is getting all the benefits it can from Mobility? Perhaps most importantly, does the concept of “Mobility” apply to utilities? The answer to the last question is most definitely. Utilities have to manage, handle and administer an inventory of work, services and material through a labor force which is about 50 percent field-located, in other words- mobile. A simple task to be done in the field often traverses several departments and several systems both before and after being completed in the field, creating a significant paper trail and requiring multiple handoffs. This generates unacceptable inefficiencies, and the ability to pass data and communicate between systems becomes a necessity. Mobility does not imply a hand-held device or a cell phone only; it means that there are interconnected systems and infrastructure to receive and send data along the entire process of delivering service-whether it is customer field service, maintenance, outage management, or construction. All these underlying systems are necessary to enable Mobility. Today utilities exhibit different degrees of Mobility; from very little to some capability; but compared to other industries, the utility industry has a long way to go to capture opportunities to fully utilize and incorporate Mobility in order to reduce costs and improve service. Two Tests for Mobility
Companies exhibit different optimum degrees of Mobility; very few today are at an optimum Mobility. That optimum stage can be recognized by the application of the following two tests, and companies should aspire to meet those two tests as closely as possible. Test #1 – Business processes are accompanied and supported by electronic data streams 100 percent of the time. An electronic data stream exists for every physical business process, including a digital representation of either goods or services provided. Practically it means that there are systems, hardware devices and connectivity to send and receive data required to accomplish tasks, be it in an office or any possible remote field location. This set-up eliminates paper trails, phone calls, inventory checking, or other “bridging” measures from taking place between employees and with customers in the course of service delivery. A good utility example is a Field Force Automation system to administer field service orders that are downloaded to a field technician’s hand-held (Mobile Data device) and uploaded to the Customer Information System for order closure and posting after task completion. When properly implemented, full Mobility has a powerful impact on three operational and service aspects of a company that result from integration through enabling technology:

  • Significant reduction in transactional data volumes, per unit costs and total service delivery costs
  • Increased ability to monitor business processes, get timely reports and be able to respond and address issues in real-time
  • Improved customer service and satisfaction: ability to check the status of appointments, bills, field-query for historical information, and update customer information

Test #2 – Business decisions are based on well-defined, firm business rules that are embedded into all systems. The maximum number of standard operational decisions is made based on business rules and parameters defined in the systems. These guide employees to choosing desired options in a given business situation, thus enabling streamlined operations, making them consistent and repeatable, reducing costs and establishing customer expectations. They also eliminate subjectivity and arbitrariness. In a Mobility scenario, employees have tools that deliver / send operational data within parameters established by those rules, providing a framework for their operational decisions. An example would be a utility pole inspector whose hand-held comes with embedded technology that takes into account actual loadings on system components on the pole as well as the actual measured state of deterioration in the pole allowing for an instant and informed decision.

Is this state of Mobility advisable for all companies? Mobility often requires substantial investment in technology and in efforts required in culture, training, and work practice adjustments in its labor force. This investment needs to be offset by operational savings and improved customer service benefits, which implies that scale and repeatability of mobility-enabled events have to be considered when looking at such investments.

Many utilities today fail our two Mobility tests:

  • Regarding the first test, there is either still too much voice or paper communication accompanied by errors and re-work; technology deployments to enable mobile workforces are too often looked at as standalone projects rather than integrated elements of a broader strategy to properly mobilize workers along the entire process of delivering service and enabling customers
  • For the second test, employees still make too many arbitrary and subjective decisions that lack consistency and create confusion, usually due to disparate local office, field, and customer-supporting structures that are based on utility models of the past decades

Focus on Mobility and subsequent deployment of technologies provides a good reason to review existing business processes, organizational structure and people skills and tasks. Such a review is necessary to extract full advantage from integrated technology deployment enabling Mobility.

Mobility Benefits
Today’s mobility technologies challenge companies and make them re-think the way they conduct business operations. Well-structured investments into such technologies result in substantial benefits to many stakeholders:

  • Utilities – rationalizes operations, eliminates unnecessary activities, allows for greater management and workforce flexibility, reduces costs
  • Customers – improves service at lower prices; provides better information about work in progress
  • Regulators – with Mobility, customer’s interests are best protected and services delivered at lowest possible costs
  • Shareholders – where possible, gets the highest return on equity as the costs are minimized

Is your utility getting the most of out mobile technologies?

Matt Chwalowski's picture
Thank Matt for the Post!
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