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The #Soloization of the Utility Workforce

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Bill Meehan's picture
Director, Utility Solutions Esri

William (Bill) Meehan is the Director of Utility Solutions for Esri. He is responsible for business development and marketing Esri’s geospatial technology to global electric and gas utilities.A...

  • Member since 2002
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  • Apr 15, 2020
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“Necessity is the Mother of Invention”
Plato from “The Republic”

We’ve heard the term digital transformation a lot over the last several years.  A real transformation, whether digital or not has to do with behavior. It means a significant, perhaps even radical change in behavior by a large portion of the population. That transformation comes from either a breakthrough in technology or through a major global event. The technological transformation happens through choice, while global events through necessity. The best example of true transformation is the 2007 release of the iPhone. Let’s create two new social media hashtags: #thebefore means the era before transformation. And #theafter means the era after transformation. There was #thebefore the iPhone and #theafter. When you view a movie today, it is clear whether the movie was made before the Steve Jobs released the iPhone or after. That’s the nature of a true transformation. There is a complete delineation of before and after. The widespread use of the streaming technology is another example of true transformation.  Enabled by the cloud. Other less recent transformations include the inventions of the telephone, electricity, airplanes and cars. Again, there was #thebefore and #theafter. Society’s behavior changed in big, dramatic ways.

9/11 created a step change in behavior as well. Remember fondly the days when you could race to the airport and go directly on to the airplane? That was the way things were #thebefore.  Technology responded with all kinds of new products, and services.

No need to remind anyone that we are in the middle of one of those big major global events. The coronavirus (COVID-19).  COVID-19 created the necessity for the soloization of the workforce. Don’t look up that term. We just coined it. You heard it here for the first time. It means that more and more people will be working solo. Let’s create another hashtag, #soloization. During the #thebefore, people gathered together in rooms, auditoriums, offices, even on field crews. As Plato stated centuries ago, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  We all wish and hope for a return to normal. That’s unlikely to happen. Instead, there will emerge a new normal - the dominance of the solitary worker: #soloization. Pandemic or not.

Technology will enable the #soloization of the workforce.  This will happen in nearly every industry. For some it will be easy. In fact, for some industries it will result in higher productivity, profits and customer satisfaction. For others it will require a degree of pain and adjustment. The utility industry will experience some of real progress and some pain.

On September 4, 1882, Thomas Edison flicked the switch to Pearl Street Station. It energized one square mile of Manhattan. On that day the electric utility industry was born. That was almost 150 years ago. The year was 1891, not long afterwards, that the first natural gas pipeline was opened. The water utility industry has been around for centuries. Over that vast time period, the industry adopted lots of habits about how to work. And they have worked well. Yet, many of those habits stifled productivity. Many habits pre-date things like the cloud, mobile and modern GIS technology. Many utilities adapted their technology to align with the old habits. Instead of adapting technology to transforming their work.

GIS can be a transformational technology if used to its fullest capability. And it can relieve the pain of soloization of the utility worker. If used wisely. Many industries use GIS for discovery and analysis. It is also used to further communication, collaboration and coordination. In effect, for many, GIS is the cousin of social media.  By the way, social media is another example of transformation. Utilities have largely used GIS as a network documentation system. That’s a fancy way of saying they use GIS as a mapping machine. To automate the process of making their old paper maps.  Sure, some use digital versions of their old maps. Many utilities are still awash in paper forms, prints, printouts and paper maps hanging on walls of conference rooms. Today those conference rooms are empty.

Field workers routinely mark up those forms, prints and maps and send them to the office for processing. In the era of #thebefore, stacks of paper piled up on desks. That can’t happen in the era of #theafter. Those office workers who process that paper are working remotely. And maybe more productively!  GIS is set up for helping field workers communicate, collaboration and coordinate with their solitary colleagues in the field and the mappers, data scientists and decision makers.

Plato was right. Necessity is the mother of invention or stated in more modern terms. COVID-19 is the mother of transformation. For more information on how field workers can transform to COVID-19 using GIS, please attend the second of three short Esri webinars. The webinar will be held on Tuesday April 21st at 9:00 Pacific.  Click here to register.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 15, 2020

9/11 created a step change in behavior as well. Remember fondly the days when you could race to the airport and go directly on to the airplane? That was the way things were #thebefore.  Technology responded with all kinds of new products, and services.

I was listening to a podcast that was discussing this and how relatable it will be in our new normal (when that comes). Specifically, as ideas like more prevalent social distancing even when things are normal (such as handshakes falling out of favor) or requiring masks in certain situations, it's easy to say we can't imagine a world like that and it'll never be the new normal. But with airports and general event security pre-9/11, you probably never would have imagined how normal it would feel to go through a metal detector when going into a concert or a theme park. Seeing what the new normal will look like, and what that means for workers and the utility industry as a whole, is making today and the coming months quite a strange and compelling time to be observing!

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Apr 15, 2020

Thanks Matt for your comments.  Things will sure be different going forward.

 

Robert Brook's picture
Robert Brook on Apr 17, 2020

Bill, I like the thought behind the article but while it has made it more prominent I debate that the trend was initiated by COVID 19. I believe you can trace its roots back 10 years or more into the decentralization of the contractor/employee work pool through remote and work from home programs. I have been a remote worker for a number of years. COVID 19 has changed nothing for me and people like me. 

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