Trends in Mobile Computing and Workforce Management

By Steven M. Brown,
Associate Editor

Mobile computing and wireless workforce management (WFM) have garnered much discussion lately within utilities, among vendors and at utility industry trade shows. The two most prominent and recent utility-focused conferences, DistribuTECH and GITA, each featured specific tracks devoted to mobile solutions and showcased mobile hardware and software vendors prominently on their exhibit floors. Since field workers make up such a large portion of the utility workforce, and since connection to those mobile workers is so vital, it comes as no surprise that much attention is being paid in that direction. What is surprising is how long it has taken for that attention to be paid. Work in the field currently is performed much the same way as it has always been performed, using much of the same technology that has always been used. That appears to be changing, though, as the mobile worker, mobile WFM and mobile technology have become top-of-mind utility industry topics.

The promise of better, faster, cheaper is being met on both the dispatch and field crew sides of the mobile enterprise equation. Technological advancements and declining hardware, software and wireless service costs are placing effective, pervasive mobile computing/ WFM within reach of utilities of all sizes. Numerous interrelated mobile computing/WFM trends are taking shape. These trends, once their effects are fully realized, likely will change the way work is structured and how it is handled by utility field crews.

Client/Server to Web-based

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One of the trends slowly but visibly taking shape in the utility industry is an evolution from client/server-based mobile WFM systems to systems built on Web-based architectures. At the forefront of this shift are a number of vendors relatively new to the industry, such as eMobile Data and iMedeon.

iMedeon has embraced a number of the current trends in mobile WFM, and it touts its iM:Work mobile WFM system as being 100 percent Web-based. The iM:Work suite is being implemented currently at Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA), a utility eager to migrate toward Web-based architectures, according to Bob Neyer, JEA’s project leader in charge of the iM:Work implementation.

“In general, wherever it’s possible and practical, we’re going with Web-based applications,” Neyer said. “We think it’s a better, more easily supportable architecture. That’s a big reason we decided to go with this system.”

Neyer said JEA is in the process of building an interface between the iM:Work application and the utility’s customer information system (CIS). The CIS generates all of JEA’s service orders and will send them to iM:Work for scheduling. Then when mobile workers log on to their mobile computers in the morning, they will be able to download their work orders-usually about 50 or 60 a day-from the iM:Work system. The field workers will continually send job status information to the iM:Work system for additional dispatch and customer service uses. While the functionality of the new system is not significantly different from that of the old, the benefits of an up-to-date Web-based system fit well with JEA’s corporate strategy.

Part of JEA’s preference toward a Web-based system, Neyer said, comes from a desire to more easily and efficiently perform upgrades on the mobile devices being used by the utility’s field crews.

“We have a lot of units in the field, and one of the issues we continually face is maintenance costs for those units,” he said. “In the past, if we wanted to upgrade anything on the field unit, we would have to bring it into the office. If you have a situation where 100 field workers have to come in at the same time to get the upgrade and remain functional, you have a minor logistical nightmare.”

Neyer said the Web-based system’s ability to upgrade field units remotely was a major selling point. “One of the features we’ve been promised is that after we install the initial version of the system and create a connection to our field units, future upgrades can be done wirelessly over the network,” he said. “We’ve tested that functionality, and it seems like it’s going to work well.”

While a trend toward Web-based architectures is evident, the client/server architecture is by no means outdated; it’s an architecture still used in current releases of many established WFM systems. Utilities that have in place functional systems built on a client/server architecture aren’t likely to migrate to Web-based systems any time soon, but the Web-based option is one that may appeal to utilities implementing their first WFM or to utilities replacing an older mainframe or client/server system that has been left unsupported.

Expanded Choices in Mobile Hardware

Just as the core mobile WFM systems are changing, so too are the types of hardware available to field workers. Web-based and thin client architectures are driving smaller, less expensive, sub-notebook computing devices out to a certain segment of the mobile workforce. The number of mobile workers currently using Palm Pilots, “smart” phones (cellular phones with limited computing ability) and Windows CE devices is small, but analysts and WFM vendors expect the number to grow.

With its Advantex WFM system, MDSI Mobile Data Solutions is a company known more for a thick client approach to field force automation, but, realizing a trend, the company also offers a thin client version of its mobile application for use on any Windows platform. MDSI even offers a wireless application protocol (WAP) version for use on WAP-enabled devices, such as Palm Pilots, smart phones and pagers. The idea, from MDSI’s perspective, is to support the right tool for the job at hand.

Scott Munro, MDSI’s product marketing director, said that while sub-notebook computing devices may not be fully developed as field force hardware yet, they are adequate for certain field workers performing certain tasks.

“Each platform has benefits and drawbacks,” Munro said. “The traditional thick client, coupled with a laptop computer, is suitable for most of our customers because they have a fair amount of information to present to their field workers and a fair amount of information for the workers to collect at the site. On the other hand, there are parts of the mobile enterprise where smaller-footprint, WAP-type devices are appropriate.”

Munro said several shortcomings hold back a more pervasive use of sub-notebook devices in the field. One is the issue of wireless coverage. Even in areas with relatively ubiquitous coverage, there remain coverage drops that can render a thin client useless. Munro also pointed out the lack of a full keyboard makes keying information into a smaller computing device tedious, and the smaller screens of sub-notebook devices are inadequate for displaying the amount of information most mobile workers need.

Despite the current limitations of smaller computing devices, a utility can realize significant cost savings by migrating a portion of the workforce to Palm Pilots, CE devices and WAP-enabled phones.

“Say you’re deploying a system to your mobile workers,” said Joe Mediate, iMedeon’s CEO. “The cost to get in includes the hardware. If you have to spend $2,000 to $3,000 or more for a Windows notebook, and you only have to spend $500 on a CE device, look at all the cost you can take out.”

Mediate believes that in the future, a much larger portion of the mobile workforce will be using sub-notebook devices. “Highly skilled workers that are doing work of a technical nature are still going to need the full-fledged notebooks,” he said. “But 70 percent of your workforce may be able to get by on a smaller device.”

As bandwidth expands and hardware manufacturers address certain issues of ergonomics and practicality with sub-notebook and handheld devices, smaller computing devices will take on more value to utility mobile workforces.

Costs Decreasing

The trend of most interest to utility executives is a decrease in the cost of the entire field force system-from mobile computing devices to the WFM system to the wireless network that interconnects them. In a paper submitted to the DistribuTECH 2001 conference by Graham Brown, president of mobile mapping solutions company Tadpole-Cartesia, and presented at the conference by Jason Linley, Tadpole-Cartesia’s director of North American business and operations, it was pointed out that while the total cost of system implementation will remain roughly the same in the future, the cost per user will decline significantly as more mobile workers are supported (see table on previous page). Tadpole-Cartesia also expects the cost of field hardware to continue its decline, due in part to the emergence of smaller computing devices. According to Tadpole-Cartesia’s white paper, the amount of time it takes to pay back the investment in a field solution also will shrink.

MDSI’s Munro said that falling costs are allowing a greater number of utilities than ever before to deploy robust field force solutions. He expects the trend to continue.

“It’s not just the largest utility companies that are capable of making an investment in mobile solutions now,” Munro said. “As a vendor, we typically like to see an 18-month payback on a system; now we’re seeing that even the smallest utilities can look at achieving that sort of shortened payback.”

Munro said that while falling hardware, software and wireless service costs are the current drivers of the shortened payback phenomenon, in the future he believes alternative system deployment models, such as that offered under the application service provider (ASP) model, will play a role as well. The idea behind ASP provision of software is that utilities can “rent” software to be run on a remote hardware system maintained by the ASP. ASP customers then access the software via the Internet and pay for it on a per-use basis. While ASP provision of software systems has been slow to catch on, both MDSI and iMedeon already offer their mobile WFM systems via ASP. Both believe the current resistance to that deployment model will erode.

Mediate said that while iMedeon currently has no utility customers using iM:Work via ASP, the company does have a medical services company and a heating, ventilation and air conditioning service company employing this alternative deployment model. Still, Mediate is confident that ASP is a viable alternative. “I believe there will be a time when people will use ASPs more than they will license,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s 10 years off; I think it’s in the next three or four years.”

Most analysts, and even vendors offering ASP delivery of systems, will agree that ASP is a tough sell in the utility industry. Ownership issues, security and stability concerns, and general IT department reluctance to outsourcing a part of their livelihood are all contributing to a slow pick-up of ASP among utilities. Still, it is expected that smaller utilities-especially those in the cooperative and municipal utility markets-will begin to move slowly to ASP as the low entry fee overrides the prevailing concerns. Mobile WFM systems-along with billing systems and call centers-seem to be among the most well-poised utility systems to take early advantage of ASP deployment.

Changing Mobile Job Functions

As core technologies evolve, mobile computing is deployed to a greater percentage of the utility’s field workforce, and wireless connectivity becomes adequately pervasive and responsive, the most profound effect may be on job functionality within the mobile workforce. Once mobile workers have the technology and connectivity to be virtually connected to the utility enterprise at all times, it stands to reason that they can take on more responsibility. Marc McCluskey, research director of AMR Research’s utilities practice, believes that the true benefits of a better, faster, cheaper field force solution will go unrealized if mobile workers continue performing the same rote tasks they’ve always performed.

“What are you going to do once you have all this added speed and functionality in your system?” McCluskey asked. “Are you still going to restrict yourself to service orders and meter reads? That’s not really generating value.

“There are real opportunities with today’s mobile solutions, but you have to restructure the goals of the mobile workforce,” he continued. “If the goal is to complete 10 work orders a day, that’s what you’re going to get. You have to set different goals for the field worker.”

While in the past, benefits of a mobile solution have come mainly in terms of operational efficiency and cost reduction (reduced drive time, reduced paperwork, reduced return visits to a site, etc.), McCluskey believes the mobile solution can become a revenue generator. He envisions a scenario in which a mobile worker makes a service call to a large customer’s site and realizes that there is an opportunity to sell a power quality monitoring system. He believes that utilities need to enable field workers to move outside their traditional “respond and serve” roles and take a more proactive approach in servicing customers.

“The mobile workforce understands how the equipment out on the power delivery system works,” McCluskey said. “Those workers just need to be given the information, and the right, to take on a different role-one that might generate revenue. I’m not talking about selling an alarm service. I’m talking about selling equipment and services that make sense in the power delivery and power management value chain.”

Evolving Technologies, Shifting Mindsets

While some of the aforementioned trends-such as the movement from client/server to Web-based and the downward trend in total system cost-are inevitable products of technological and economic evolution, others will require a more active transformation of the utility industry’s conventional wisdom. Those shifts in mindset can be painful, but to take advantage of technological trends and maximize the mobile workforce’s value, they are absolutely necessary.

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