Merger and acquisition activity in the utility industry has put tremendous pressure on the field organization to deliver significant improvements in operational performance. What were once local utilities with separate field groups to meet the service, outage and asset management needs of their customers, have now become continent-spanning energy mega-corporations. The marketing department may have established a single brand image, but in the field there are still multiple operating groups, each with its own legacy infrastructure, systems and operating practices.
The Field Ops Challenge
Take for example, the fictional example of Unified Energy. What were formerly a New England gas company, a Carolinas gas and electric company, and a Midwest electric company are now together one of the largest energy companies in the United States.
Once the deal is done and the critical negotiations over who becomes CEO are completed, the real work of achieving the economies of scale demanded by mergers and acquisitions is at hand. This means making what were once three companies into a single “Unified” organization by eliminating redundancies in infrastructure and systems, and establishing uniform operating practices.
In this situation, Unified Energy’s executives are compelled to seek out proven means of achieving immediate, measurable cost reductions. In search of a bottom line that meets analyst expectations, the focus eventually turns to the part of the organization that has the greatest impact on the cost of service delivery—the mobile work force. This is not surprising when operations staff can account for a significant portion of the expenditures of a utility.
Unified Energy’s executives need to reduce operating costs while still delivering service that meets customer expectations and regulatory requirements. The latter constraint makes the “hatchet” approach to cost reduction a risky and shortsighted strategy. Instead, Unified Energy needs to more effectively manage work across organizational boundaries—for all types of work (service, outage, asset management), for all types of services (gas and electric), and for all operating companies.
The Field Ops Solution
The introduction of mobile computing and wireless communications has helped utilities reduce operating costs, improve customer service, increase work force effectiveness, and improve work force safety. In measurable terms, mobile work force management (WFM) increases the number of jobs completed each day, reduces drive time, shortens the time to provide and restore service, reduces the need for informational middlemen such as dispatchers and data entry clerks, eliminates infrastructure such as dispatch centers, improves customer and asset data quality, and reduces overtime.
It does so by automating the end-to-end workflow from work order creation to completion. Work force management:
- Integrates with enterprise applications such as CIS, OMS and WMS to receive work requests and deliver work results
- Manages resource planning and shift scheduling to meet work commitments
- Optimally assigns work to crews
- Dynamically adjusts to changing work conditions
- Wirelessly dispatches work assignments to the field
- Provides technicians with online field access to customer and asset data
- Delivers real-time feedback on work progress
- Automates capture and validation of work results
- Provides measures of work force performance
Enterprise WFM—Multiplying the Benefits
Many utilities have successfully applied work force automation to one or more field groups within the organization. However, the majority of utilities are still missing out on the opportunity to multiply the benefits by deploying WFM enterprise-wide. Enterprise WFM can provide a single, enterprise-wide system for managing the entire mobile work force and its work, regardless of the type of work, the field organization that performs the work, where technicians work, or the enterprise application that generates the work. This means using the same platform to manage service, outage, and asset management work for both electric and gas.
The incremental business case for deploying WFM enterprise-wide is compelling. While enterprise applications such as CIS, OMS and WMS are responsible for managing customer, service and asset information, only enterprise WFM can provide a platform for managing work across the enterprise, regardless of the enterprise application from which the work is generated. Enterprise WFM delivers an integrated, operations-centric view of the mobile work force and its workload. It promotes operational efficiency in individual operating areas while taking advantage of opportunities to manage work across departmental boundaries. The benefits are clear:
- Work force practices may be applied uniformly across the field organization.
- Barriers to distributing work across organizational boundaries are eliminated.
- Dispatchers can dynamically define global or local views of work and crews.
- Managers have an enterprise view of overall work status.
- Performance measures are generated for the entire work force.
Applying Enterprise WFM to Unified Energy
Today, New England Gas is focused on gas service and is still using its legacy CIS developed 20 years earlier. Jobs are distributed to the field using paper. Carolina G&E has custom-built CIS and OMS platforms with a rudimentary WFM system in place for both gas and electric service, while the outage technicians are dispatched via radio. Midwest Electric has packaged CIS, OMS, WMS, and WFM solutions from vendors—all purchased in the last five years. The CIS, OMS and WFM systems are integrated so service and outage technicians are dispatched automatically. However, asset management workers still operate from paper job orders generated by the WMS.
The recommended approach for Unified Energy is to first choose a WFM platform that is flexible enough to meet the needs of each work force, extensible to accommodate the automation of incremental work forces, adaptable to changes in work force practices, and scalable to accommodate new operating companies. This allows Unified Energy to take a staged approach to work force automation and change management that minimizes risk and externalizes changes to enterprise applications, while maximizing benefits:
- Achieve a quick win by automating the service technicians at New England Gas on the new WFM platform
- Eliminate the WFM system at Carolina G&E by adding the gas and service technicians to the new WFM platform
- Automate the Carolina G&E outage technicians
- Replace the WFM system at Midwest Electric by adding the service and outage technicians to the new WFM platform
- Automate the asset management crews at Midwest Electric
This approach allows Unified Energy to automate its entire work force while consolidating and/or replacing enterprise applications on its own schedule. The WFM solution provides the flexibility and adaptability to effectively manage work and crews as changes are made to both enterprise applications and work force practices. At each step, Unified Energy gains the benefits of field force automation in terms of lower costs, greater effectiveness and better customer service. As each new group is added to the enterprise-wide WFM, the flexibility of the organization to respond to work force problems increases while the scope of management control broadens.
The result is that Unified Energy not only has a single brand image, but it also has a single work force management solution that delivers cost reductions while promoting increased operational effectiveness and better customer service.
Field operations and the work done by mobile crews continue to be vitally important to the health of the modern utility. It is through in-the-field work that system reliability is maintained and improved. Additionally, field crews are among the most visible of a utility’s assets. Utilities aiming for better reliability and improved customer service must look to the field. Enterprise-wide work force management has emerged as an important key to success in an evolving utility industry.
Scott Munro is director, product marketing for MDSI Mobile Data Solutions Inc. Munro is responsible for the definition and positioning of MDSI’s Advantex mobile work force management product in the telecommunications, broadband, and utilities markets. Munro holds a B.Sc. in Computer Engineering from the University of Alberta and an M.B.A. from Simon Frasier University.