By Deborah Springborn, Alliance Data
Over the last 20 years, field workforce automation was the poster child for overlooked opportunities in utility technology. Dispatching had not kept pace with innovations in other utility technologies, such as customer information systems and outage management. As a result, dispatchers were dependent on low-tech solutions for communication with their remote workforce. Juggling a combination of radio communication, landline telephone calls and, for a fortunate few, mobile phone calls, was standard. These inefficient solutions often resulted in confusion and time delays, which were unwelcome but tolerable during normal operations. However, during emergencies and crises, communication snafus posed a serious problem.
Early Adopters Drive Dispatching Solutions
For many utilities, this scenario was typical throughout the mid-1980s and into the mid-1990s. And, for some, it’s still the norm today. However, starting in the 1980s, a few utilities pioneered, and others purchased, what was dubbed a mobile dispatching solution — more commonly known as computer-aided dispatching. However, for the handful of utilities charting this brave new course, there were no standards.
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By 1989, Delmarva Power was already pursuing the convergence of communications technology and mobile workforce. The utility installed Motorola’s mobile data communications system by equipping service vehicles with on-board data terminals, which enabled them to redistribute orders throughout the day without having to contact each technician. Order response times began to improve and the workforce became more efficient. Itron customized a system for Nevada Power using DOS-based portable devices, which allowed the utility to use existing terminal technology to reduce costs. The success stories of pioneering utilities caught the attention of other utilities that were interested in exploring mobile technology.
Disparate Systems Pose Early Challenges
With cell phones and PDAs now a way of life and with coffee shops offering wi-fi networks and wireless WANs, it may be hard to understand why the utility industry has only recently embraced mobile workforce management technology. But there were real stumbling blocks to adapting disparate systems into a unified workforce solution.
One of the biggest inhibitors to implementing a mobile dispatching system was the private radio network. It was expensive to upgrade a voice system to transmit data, the mobile solution itself was complex, and field terminal selections were limited. Ram Communications entered the scene in 1989 as one of the first public providers of data air time. This development improved options for wireless data transmission. However, the lack of intelligent field terminals meant that if field service technicians lost radio contact, they could not work their orders until data communications with the dispatch system were restored. Customers were left to wait and wonder when the service truck would arrive.
In 1992, MicroSlate released its “Desert Storm” rugged mobile terminal to the business market, and other vendors were quick to follow. With the advent of these new rugged mobile terminal intelligent mobile computers, options for field devices exploded. What’s more, these new PC-like mobile terminals had hard drives to store data when communication links were down. Field crews could continue servicing customers as long as they had all of the necessary details at hand. During emergencies or natural disasters, however, when communications were likely to be difficult, field techs could still be left out in the cold without current dispatch data to direct or re-direct them to areas of most need.
Today’s Landscape: Better Technology, Improved Service
The explosion in technological advancements in system integration, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet, and rapid advancements in wireless data communication technologies are making a mobile workforce management solution (MWFMS, formerly known as computer-aided dispatching) increasingly attractive. As the advances continue, the cost of the technology and the time required to implement a solution are continuing to decrease as compared to systems deployed in the late 1990s.
Today’s more robust MWFMS offers customers appointment setting options, providing more personalized service, and ultimately, increased customer satisfaction. These systems include more efficient scheduling engines, optimized routing, global positioning systems/automatic vehicle location (GPS/AVL), map-based dispatching, and maps on the mobile unit in the field to identify order location or facilities.
These enterprise systems allow utilities to leverage their technology infrastructure, with integration to CIS, OMS, Work/Asset, GIS and other host systems needing to send information to and from the field. Utilities are increasingly adopting a single MWFMS to manage all work types received from any system for transmissions to and from field personnel/mobile units. This integration enables utilities to reap even greater financial benefits by reducing implementation time, training cycles, the number of required support personnel, and overall maintenance cost. In turn, customers benefit when the utility’s internal departments can share information and work together to develop and dispatch faster, more cohesive solutions.
This streamlining serves two key purposes: supporting more efficient use of field resources and providing tools that increase the accuracy and timeliness of communications with customers. These timesaving features can be critical in identifying crisis situations, such as downed lines or arcing transformers, during widespread outages. Crews can be dispatched to the areas of most need quickly and with advance notification of the scene they are likely to encounter.
Integrated Workforce Solutions: A New Customer Satisfaction Tool
Energy utilities have a tremendous responsibility to stakeholders, rate payers, and their governing state agencies to provide and maintain energy to the public. The challenge is to find a solution that simultaneously improves customer response time, increases staff productivity, and controls operating expenses. For example, most utilities execute a 20-step paper-based process to ensure that service/work orders are completed. By using a wireless MWFMS to dispatch and manage service/work orders, that process can be reduced to five or six steps.
Similarly, with a MWFMS, there is a significant reduction in the resources and travel time required to transmit, work, research and complete field orders. IBM validated that MWFMS technology enables utilities to gain between a 10- and 30-percent increase in productivity. That increase translates into more orders worked per day, faster response to customer requests, and fewer billing errors, since data is captured at the source. Utilities with a MWFMS can send field workers paperless work orders from any location. Field workers can start from any place, including their home, and send in their completed work remotely, thus freeing time for actual service functions. Dispatchers can change assignments on-the-fly, redirecting personnel and resources where they’re most needed.
A MWFMS can also provide a strategic customer service tool, since customer service representatives (CSRs) can provide customers with real-time updates during a call. Equally important, CSRs can work proactively to notify customers about schedule changes and issues or problems affecting their service. This brand of customer service can ease the strain of dealing with outages and weather-related emergencies. Keeping customers updated, and assuring them that their problems are being addressed, can head off PUC commission inquiries and unfavorable headlines.
Demand for Mobile Solutions
Businesses that are dependent on communication with field personnel are increasingly embracing the MWFMS for customer-focused reasons. A July 2007 survey by the Aberdeen Group revealed that, of the companies surveyed, 50 percent implemented mobile solutions in response to customer demand for faster service call resolution. Customer pressure for more accurate appointment performance drove 25 percent of responders to adopt a MWFMS.
Utilities contemplating a MWFMS have two options for deploying this solution: a traditional license-based model, or contracting with a MWFMS outsourcing provider. Individual company dynamics determine which option is the best solution for their workforce, customers and shareholders.
License-based Model Maintains Utility Responsibility
Utilities that have the time and resources to manage all the components of a MWFMS are attracted to the traditional license-based model. Typically, the utility assesses available vendors for the MWFMS application software, as well as its supporting hardware and software components.
The utility must negotiate a licensing contract with each vendor involved in the project, and determine an implementation approach with one or more vendors. The implementation team installs, configures, interfaces, tests and deploys the solution to the end users.
Cobb Energy distributes electricity to over 190,000 customers near Atlanta, Ga. The utility recently followed the licensed model to deploy a system that dispatches outage tickets (interfaced with the OMS by the same vendor providing the MWFMS) and meter turn on/off tickets (interfaced with their CIS). They have realized benefits including automated sorting of jobs by area to prepare for automated dispatching. This feature alone saves time in assigning crews efficiently, and ensuring that they have the necessary information when they reach the customer’s site. Cobb has also initiated real-time update of service or work order data to its CIS. With this innovation, Cobb CSRs have current service status available at all times to answer customer inquiries. Timing is particularly sensitive where meter turn on/off work is concerned. With real-time information, crews and the office can simultaneously understand the customer’s account and payment status.
Outsourcing Model Frees Internal Resources
Utilities that prefer to allocate internal resources for more strategic purposes often turn to outsourcers who specialize in the hosting and management of application software. Outsourcing a MWFMS solution transitions the responsibility of IT and functional management to the outsourcing provider. When faced with ramping up to address the complexities of implementing a MWFMS infrastructure, with its multiple servers and applications, wireless network and mobile computers, utilities may opt to outsource. This tactic can eliminate draining internal resources, while establishing contractual service levels that might otherwise be challenging to implement with already overburdened internal staff. Further, the outsourcer can likely offer a lower per transaction cost due to its economies of scale.
One Midwestern U.S. utility, Integrys Energy Group, recently opted for the outsourced hosted model to provide dispatch services for two of its regulated gas utility holdings, Michigan Gas Utilities and Minnesota Energy Resources. Michigan Gas Utilities serves 16,000 customers in Michigan. Minnesota Energy Resources serves 207,000 customers in 55 counties across Minnesota.
The hosted field dispatch operations support 24/7 dispatching to more than 200 field techs in Michigan and Minnesota. The solution includes emergency, outage, scheduled and compliance work activities. The field tech’s mobile software is integrated with the CIS, which is hosted by the same provider. Integrys has realized benefits, such as specific service levels associated with dispatch. The mobile solution has allowed the company to embrace new technology now available in the market, in an effort to provide improved field data collection and accuracy, as well as utilizing advances in broadband technology which provide more efficient communication between dispatch and field techs.
In a time when Mother Nature seems more determined than ever to throw everything in her arsenal at us, managing the mobile utility workforce is becoming a necessary tool in serving customers and using resources as efficiently as possible. The internal benefits to the utility are numerous. Equally important, a MWFMS is both a technology and a tool that can have a direct impact on ensuring customers receive accurate information and timely, well-planned service.
Deborah Springborn is consulting services manager at Alliance Data. She has more than 20 years of experience in the industry working with utilities to select, implement and operate mobile workforce management solutions. Her roots are grounded in the energy sector when she first worked for a southern utility company in the early 1980s.
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