By Guerry Waters, Oracle Utilities
Today’s utilities leverage software applications to manage their mobile fieldwork forces, but few are happy with the results or costs associated with using different mobile work force applications for different purposes, such as scheduling meter readers or asset maintenance. Many are frustrated with an inability to locate skilled technicians during an emergency and worry that their existing applications will not make up for the knowledge they will lose when the aging work force retires.
There is a solution: a new generation of mobile work force management applications that empower 21st century mobile field-workers.
What’s New? Context-oriented Fieldwork Applications
Yesterday’s mobile work force software put basic information right in front of dispatchers, who then used it to make routine decisions and manage customer expectations. These applications provided considerable support to dispatchers by putting basic data online.
Utilities today often face challenges that prove too much for traditional applications to handle. Utility field technicians have varying skills and certification levels that limit what they can do. Labor agreements might further restrict a technician’s ability to move across multiple tasks. Therefore, dispatchers must consider technicians’ credentials, recent work deployments, recent overtime assignments and current location, and task priorities to make the best resource match for each job. A massive amount of data exists behind each field assignment.
Today’s dispatchers have access to a new tool: a context-aware or context-oriented fieldwork application. These applications generate action recommendations or decisions based on available information. Unlike their predecessors, these applications do not require every possible data point before they deliver a result.
Context-aware mobile work force management software helps utilities make routine decisions and free dispatchers to focus on meeting customer expectations. These applications increase dispatchers’ efficiency by making routine assignments without human intervention. When exceptions occur, this software accelerates decision-making by presenting the necessary contextual information with problem areas highlighted.
This advanced software, however, does not just make dispatchers’ jobs easier. It also enables utilities to significantly increase the number of workers each dispatcher can handle, boosting productivity. Further, next-generation mobile work force software reinforces classroom experiences and builds technician knowledge and confidence, even in the face of new tasks such as smart grid deployments. As a result, supervisors can provide workers with on-the-job training to be eligible for promotions and salary increases.
Distributed Optimization—A Computational Grid
Utilities also need a way to manage the large amount of complex data to identify and prioritize tasks, as well as make assignments. Typically, yesterday’s mobile work force applications segmented the staggering amount of field activities a utility might have into arbitrary territories to enable the utility to manage this data. This inefficient segmentation did not allow utilities to schedule emergency responders or construction activities across artificial boundaries.
Today, computational grids within next-generation mobile work force management software feed up to a year’s worth of planned maintenance and inspection field activities into the system to assign the right crew at the right time, in any area the utility serves. Crews closest to the job can respond without the restriction of artificial time, work type and geographic boundaries imposed by older technologies. In the field, the applications shorten routes and reduce truck rolls. In the office, multiple departments can share the same view, breaking down work silos and helping share field resources.
Utilities have a long history of highly successful training programs. And for many utility positions, such as those in the contact center, training can provide a relatively seamless transition between experienced and new workers. The same cannot be said for technical workers in the field. Utility fieldwork is more complex than fieldwork for businesses such as delivery or appliance repair. In the past, dispatchers or other human supervisors drove each step of the complex fieldwork process, including monitoring field-workers closely to ensure their compliance with strict safety and quality standards.
Today, mobile work force software monitors technicians as they complete each assigned task, minimizing the burden on supervisors by requiring them only to check for completed work flows. This enables utilities to reduce dramatically the time needed to certify task completion and conformity, even with the most demanding standards.
These tools capture the experience of the most knowledgeable technicians and transform it into task guides and checklists. With this capability, field technicians no longer depend on an experienced crew chief or supervisor to approve completed work and authorize a move to the next part of the task. Newer mobile work force software answers questions and compares worker progress with a standard set of task-completion rules and alternatives. It alerts workers to the need to correct errors, informs supervisors if task results do not meet specifications or if workers appear to take longer than expected to complete tasks, and keeps dispatchers informed of progress toward task completion.
This capability is especially useful when utilities leverage contract or loaned crews for damage caused by storms or other events. Typically, utilities find that outsourced field crews can encounter major problems that utilities often learned about only after they occur. Tree trimmers might spot and report a damaged transformer, for instance, but by the time they report it to their company and the company gets the message to the utility, the transformer already might have burned out and left hundreds of people in the dark. Given that public safety issues could be involved in simple tasks such as vegetation management, utilities often hesitate to outsource despite potential cost savings. In the case of widespread storm damage when utilities borrow technicians from other utilities, these crews frequently require extensive supervision that utilities are hard-pressed to find during emergencies.
Today’s mobile work force tools address both problems by providing contract and loaned crews with the same knowledge tools and monitoring applications available to native field-workers. Utilities can integrate information about contract and loaned workers into the main utility mobile work force application so dispatchers can deploy them flexibly. There is little or no delay in work completion because supervisors can monitor the progress of all crews remotely.
The Paperwork Revolution
Managing a large amount of data and the complex fieldwork process are not the only utility challenges. In the past, the mobile work force software design mimicked the paper-based forms that preceded them. In the decades that followed, some applications replaced slow, inefficient paperwork conventions with faster, more intuitive tools. Industries with simple field tasks, such as package delivery, have adopted them speedily.
Utility fieldwork, however, is vastly more complex than package delivery. Consequently, vendors have been slow to provide tools that fully incorporate what experts know about efficient human-computer interaction. Turn the page to 2010, and the situation changes. With modern mobile work force management software, field technicians can use forms with embedded tools such as:
- Process-specific wizards that accommodate many alternative field scenarios and that capture data based on context,
- Drop-down menus,
- Point-and-click as well as drag-and-drop options for data entry,
- Maps that reflect actual conditions and permit field-workers to add updates in near real time, and
- Assistants that highlight errors or unlikely choices based on an analysis of previous data entered.
Yesterday’s Gantt chart has become a fully functional Web-based interface. Its drag-and-drop capability puts virtually all data just a mouse click away.
Unified communications offers many benefits to utilities. Previously, utilities relied on multiple, nonintegrated communications channels to limited field devices among dispatchers and field-workers. Spotty, incomplete cell phone coverage, however, meant utilities could achieve reasonable reliability only through multiple contracts with multiple providers. The high cost of coverage encouraged utilities to use a random assortment of less expensive fill-in communications systems when possible—Wi-Fi at utility-owned facilities, for instance, or radio for territories without public carriers.
The complexity of trying to use this medley of communications channels rose exponentially when utilities attempted to use multiple communications devices. The result: training times skyrocketed; errors occurred as field technicians switched among networks and varieties and brands of equipment; and the multiplicity of networks created problems for data retention and network transitions. Further, few external services provided the security utilities require, forcing utilities to own their own mobile communication security policies.
Today’s mobile work force application includes a mobile communication platform—a single point of administration from which to install, configure and maintain all aspects of the communication/device network. All components share a common data model and configuration, oriented around common business processes, integrating the mobile work force application with all devices using it—not just laptops, but also tablets, personal digital assistants and cell phones that receive both screens of information and text messages. A new generation of mobile work force applications helps utilities maintain safety and efficiency as the next-generation fieldwork force steps into place.
Guerry Waters is vice president of industry strategy with Oracle Utilities.
Five Tips for Guiding Change
By Bill Sherman, Intulogy
1. Explain the why behind the change.
2. Demonstrate how the change fits with your organization’s core values.
3. Be realistic and truthful about the change, even if it’s difficult.
4. Share specifics about the change.
5. Reward change.
Investing In Technology? Be Sure to Invest in People.
By Bill Sherman, Intulogy
The 21st century digital workplace will generate substantial changes in workplace behaviors and employee attitudes. Employees are increasingly surrounded by an ever-present cloud of data that can be accessed easily and manipulated through tablets. Will people know what to do with that data?
Many recent technology rollouts have stumbled because the training has assumed that employees have common technology skill and expertise. This mistake can cause learners to check out because content is too easy or become overwhelmed because it is too hard.
One new technology, augmented reality, will require an organizational change strategy. Augmented reality allows employees to use their mobile devices to layer data on top of a live image of what they see in front of them. Technicians point the mobile device’s camera at the object to be repaired, make a few taps on the screen, then have access to data and a virtual image they can rotate on any axis. This approach has been used within other sectors, such as the military, to guide maintenance tasks and reduce average repair times by providing part histories or on-the-spot virtual task training.
Imagine a utility launching a new augmented reality application for its maintenance technicians. The 3-D digital interface might seem intuitive to a young employee who grew up playing PlayStation games, but the process of multitouch 3-D rotation might require baby boomers to learn new interface skills.
Young, digitally native technicians quickly master hands-on skills within augmented reality, but they might not know how to interpret the data effectively. They are skilled with the technology but not the content. Senior technicians understand the concepts, but they might struggle because the interface requires them to learn new skills. Both groups leave the training course without their needs’ being met. As a result, they might have limited intentions to use the augmented reality application in the field.
Segmenting the rollout training into tracks can allow an organization time to speak to the needs of each group of learners. Courses might cover the same content, but each course aligns more closely with the core learning needs of its audience.
Bill Sherman is co-founder and managing partner of Intulogy, a provider of customized training and people processes. He specializes in next-generation learning solutions such as social learning and simulation training. For more information visit http://intulogy.com.
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