Smart Grids Start With Smarter Employees

by Doug Mead and Al Folsom, Exemplary Performance

As many power providers move forward with technologies that can make the smart grid real, the investment in people programs for those operating and maintaining that technology has lagged in many cases. As a result, there is a high probability of not attaining the intended return on investment (ROI), especially when utilities are not thinking carefully about the required investment in time, personnel and money to deliver the smart people required to support the smart grid.

The Human Performance Imperative

Because smart grids will become a global reality, effective training is imperative. The smart grid requires people with the skills, knowledge, tools and resources to implement, maintain and leverage the potential of the grid. At least tens of millions of dollars will be spent on education, in addition to the billions needed for technology upgrades. The biggest challenge for utilities with these initiatives is their analyzing and planning for the specific changes workers will encounter as utilities head toward smart grid implementation. This includes determining which processes are impacted, what company roles will change when the smart grid goes live and which executives or other employees are best suited to champion the transition.

To prepare workers effectively, training must apply to specific tasks and be relevant to on-the-job performance. The opposite is providing unfocused, generic information that is typically lost soon after a person leaves a seminar or workshop. Power companies must identify which roles are most affected up front and organize training and other performance support around how the valuable outputs people produce on the job are changed. By job role then, we must ask, “What will workers need to do more, better or differently, and what systems will support that new or changed performance?”

The Investment

Smart grid preparation has had high visibility. The Department of Energy (DOE) set aside federal stimulus funds in excess of $144 million several years ago to fund training on 54 smart grid projects. That money included training for future utility employees at the collegiate level, and more than half the funds were directed toward other new company hires and retraining current employees.

During the grant announcement, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the funds would be split among work force training programs designed to prepare employees for the smart grid and state public utility commissions. DOE funding has found its way to venues such as the University of Buffalo and Buffalo State, which will start a collaborative project this fall teaching synchronized courses on electrical power systems related to smart grid construction. Three million dollars from the DOE will help launch the program. The two schools are part of a larger New York state collegiate consortium allied with the DOE’s Strategic Training and Education in Power Systems (STEPS) initiative.

Eight Steps to Optimize Investment in People to Ensure Smart Grid ROI

Consider these eight steps to optimize the smart grid people investment as a model for implementing the needed programs:

1. Make sure goals are clear. Define the smart grid human performance process, develop vision and design a road map to get there. Determine the new goals the organization is trying to achieve.

2. Determine the work process and jobs that will be affected. Clearly identify roles and responsibilities for the end user employees involved in the transition from project deployment to business operations.

3. Identify new job accomplishments. For each work process and job affected, clearly state what end users must produce on the job and after training.

4. Establish performance criteria. Determine critical accuracy, productivity and timeliness for each work process and job accomplishment.

5. Identify new transactions for success. These include software tasks and the steps required to produce each accomplishment.

6. Determine job influences that will need to change. Select the influences that encourage appropriate behaviors: influences from the work environment, incentives, skill, knowledge and information. Then, determine if the capabilities exist within the company to align these influences.

7. Develop and implement solutions. Design, develop, test and implement the interventions that will ensure the appropriate behaviors to achieve the required outputs.

8. Track progress toward goals. Track, measure and evaluate whether the organization’s business goals are being met as a result of smart grid training and related interventions. Among the issues to be evaluated: Did the value of the training exceed its cost, and did the training transfer to the job?

“The emphasis should be on why we do a job,” quality guru W. Edwards Deming once said.

While many tasks needed to maintain the smart grid are similar to those used for the current grid, determining the differences and how to approach those changes is key. In an industry where 30-year-veteran linemen will be involved in retraining for the smart grid, that is no small task. The consequences are enormous. Customer service, operating costs and equipment performance will be impacted adversely if training and other performance support are not optimized.

Do it Right

So how do you manage smart grid human capital investments? A major part begins with effective training. This means training for performance competence. Do it right, and the human capital ROI can be impressive.

The challenge is to identify exemplary performers and leverage their knowledge, insights and creativity to help identify the processes and outputs required for the smart grid. A carefully structured approach to implementing smart grid technology will include a detailed, front-end analysis that will ensure a cost-effective implementation strategy that includes the right training and other influences on human performance.

Motivating employees for the required training is a major factor. What’s in it for them, how it will further their careers, where is the guarantee that concepts trained will be relevant after the smart grid is implemented, especially if the project time lines slip? Trainers must have the expertise to lead employees through the smart grid rollout. Smart grid training also means ensuring the proper players are involved.

Managing change at the process level instead of the department or activity level will provide a broader, more integrated work view. It will foster interaction and a greater level of interdependency that can lead more quickly to the goal: improved customer service and reduced costs.

Identifying the outputs produced by employees and the decisions they make to achieve those outputs provides a baseline for future training as the program evolves. Along with proper training, there will be the need for the right technology that equips workers to put training to use and produce outputs of value for the company; e.g., updated job aids, performance support and electronic devices. Aligned work processes among various departments are also imperative. Since smart grid applications must mesh with a utility’s “legacy” systems, such as customer information and outage management, training must address how to integrate these older systems with the new tools to maximize the ROI.

Lack of feedback is a major negative factor when it comes to job performance. Useful feedback on a consistent basis will help strengthen the connection between training and implementation. In the context of smart grid training and rollout, ask questions such as, “How will people know what good looks like? Will feedback be embedded in the systems or will supervisors need to provide this important feedback as workers do things new or differently?”

The Impact of Training

With new smart grid technologies, utilities will be able to determine quickly where outages occur in the system, which will help restore service faster and at a lower cost. They also will be able to draw electrical power from those plants, producing at the most cost-efficient levels. Smart meters at homes and businesses can analyze usage patterns and identify ideal times to run clothes dryers in basements or machinery in shops. That puts less demand on local utilities at peak times. There will be no reason to send meter readers because wireless technologies can transmit all relevant data. Having the right tools, equipment and training will help make the smart grid more effective.

The Alignment of Training With Business Prosperity

There likely will be some reluctance from a traditional industry that could face changes in doing business during the next few decades. Using a smarter, relevant approach to training rather than traditional methods can help overcome aversion to something new. A human performance approach can affect where to store relevant information—in a trainee’s memory or in job aids—while ensuring training is cost-effective and relevant. It also can identify situations post-training in which additional tools or education might be necessary.

Chu, when he announced the stimulus funds for smart grid training, said that the U.S. cannot build a 21st-centruy economy with a mid-20th-century electricity system.

“We can drive the evolution to a clean, smart, national electricity system,” he said.

Properly training power company employees will play a major role in that transition.

Going live means having everything ready, including the right technology and people with the right skills, knowledge and information. Lining up the infrastructure and information technology resources, making the purchasing decisions, having the right people, and then sequencing all of those activities emphasize the importance of taking a highly structured human performance approach. Every month that passes without leveraging all factors suboptimizes a utility’s smart grid transition.

Smart Questions for Executives

Who then, is responsible for the optimal investment in people to ensure smart grid ROI? The answers come from the questions and resulting dialogue at the executive level, such as:

  • Do we have a business goal and strategy to prepare employees to implement and maintain new smart grid technology?
  • Does our training and development department (TDD) have the capacity to create a strategic partnership with executives and field operations?
  • Will our TDD be able to identify those critical points of the business that will cause the strategy to succeed or fail and provide relevant TDD solutions?
  • Do we have overall responsibility to implement smart grid technologies as cost-effectively, efficiently and timely as possible while we ensure smart grid employee performance, quality, productivity and retention?
  • Does our strategy include ways to shorten time to employee and customer competence?
  • Do we know how to ensure employees learn how to perform new smart grid transactions quickly and accurately in new smart grid databases?
  • Does our management system include the means to track progress against smart grid implementation goals?
  • Do we have a process to identify new tasks within new software to ensure success?
  • Are we able to systematically determine the job influences required in the transition, including skill, knowledge, information, work environment and motivation and incentives?
  • Do we have a process to ensure the value of preparing employees for smart grid technology is higher than the cost of preparing employees?


Doug Mead and Al Folsom are principal consultants with Exemplary Performance, a human performance improvement company based in Annapolis, Md. Mead brings more than 30 years of experience in the utility industry. The company has experience in the public and private sectors, often with Fortune 500 companies. Call 410-266-8400 or visit http://exemplary for more information.

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