Dynamic desktops power workforce

By Dana Bacciocco, Associate Editor

Utility companies manage loads of information-from portals to PDAs (personal digital assistants), energy companies are embracing information technology (IT) and empowering the workforce. Looking to serve customers and enhance the bottom line in the competitive, diversified energy company, the energy sector has been quick to embrace information technology to direct complicated information flow, streamline business processes, manage resources and compete.

Online trading and procurement portals are changing the structure of the energy industry. Corporate portals affect business models and strengthen intellectual capital of an organization. The enterprise information portal (EIP) is a Web site that acts as a single gateway to a company’s information and knowledge base for employees (some can extend to customers, business partners, and the general public). An EIP typically includes functions like access and search, categorization, collaboration, personalization, profiling, application integration, and security, as a simple Internet-based business desktop. The portal is also a means to deploy additional services quickly and economically.

Two vital features of portals and mobile systems are scalability and extensibility-the former, maintaining performance levels as users are added; the latter is system ability to accommodate adding or expanding capabilities. Plumtree, a portal developer serving customers like Duke Energy and FirstEnergy, reported that ability to integrate new services into a portal was the most important feature to organizations launching a corporate portal.

In Plumtree’s “An Overview of Corporate Portal Technology and Deployment,” META Group predicted 60 percent of utilities will have portals in 2001.

Portal pushers

The growing business-to-employee area is being populated by relative newcomers like Plumtree and Viador, and veterans like SAP and IBM, and specialty partnerships. For example, mySAP Utilities includes mySAP Workplace, a role-based enterprise portal. IBM with SAP Portals Inc. will integrate key enterprise business applications from SAP, PeopleSoft Inc., Baan, Oracle Financials and others into portal solutions using IBM’s WebSphere Portal Server. American Express Co., TIBCO Software Inc., Infosys Technologies Ltd. and WestBridge Capital Partners recently created a new company, Workadia, which will provide companies with comprehensive, customizable business intranets through browser-accessed hosted portals.

American Electric Power (AEP) is using Corechange Inc.’s Coreport 3g access framework product to build an integrated enterprise portal. With Corechange, 80 percent of all information will be within two mouse clicks of the front page; AEP will be able to personalize the Web environment for users and permit remote access from any Internet-connected device, including wireless.

“AEP is leading the energy sector through its investment in portal software,” said Ulf Arnetz, chairman and CEO of Corechange. “By providing every corporate employee access to all the applications and information they need through Coreport’s comprehensive Web-enabled framework, AEP will improve collaboration within the company and transform the way they conduct business.”

On the move

Field force automation (FFA) applications are also among the vanguard in advanced IT. Driven by increased competition and customer requirements, FFA for utilities is growing in sophistication and in tandem with IT improvements in internal connectivity and emphasis on employee empowerment.

According to @hand, mobile software provider to Allegheny Power, more than half of an average utility company’s workforce is mobile, so field service crews can have a significant impact on the bottom line. FFA has both tactical and strategic benefits for companies, from field task efficiencies like managing work orders, meter reading, asset inspection, project management and outage management, to improved business processes, communications, productivity, enhanced enterprise and customer systems and customer satisfaction.

To make gains in efficiency across the board, the road ultimately leads to software functionality and adaptability. The best mobile (and wireless) technology is device-independent; uses a portal to aggregate information; and relies on XML for software integration and hardware accommodation.

While both FFA and portal technology are advancing in parallel, vendors are bridging the gap between the two or partnering to integrate the field and the enterprise environments.

For example, @hand technology was developed specifically to address the needs of the mobile workforce; integration services are standards-based and flexible, to integrate with multiple enterprise systems commonly found in a utility company like outage management systems, geographic information systems, customer information systems, supply chain management and ERP.

ViryaNet recently partnered with Xelus Inc., to embed ViryaNet’s wireless workforce, service contract, and depot repair management functionality into the Xelus ESM solution suite, creating a complete service planning and execution solution for utilities.

“Integrating ViryaNet Service Hub functionality with the Xelus ESM solution will enable service personnel to share information and work more effectively,” said Win Burke, president and CEO, ViryaNet. “We are confident that Xelus will deliver even more value to its clients by embedding these capabilities within their overall ESM (enterprise service management) solution.”

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