Rolling Out Technology to Field Workers

 

By Erik Shepard, Waterbridge Consulting

What is one of the most difficult challenges a utility faces? Reducing generation to meet with green initiatives? Hard, yes. Convincing stakeholders and customers that critical peak pricing is good for them? Tricky, sure. Rolling out technology to field workers? Sure to drive terror into even the bravest IT department. Field workers are often resistant to change and downright defiant when it comes to embracing technology. In the case of one utility, a tablet computer deployed for field computing was stolen from a truck with the windows left open—three times.

So what is the secret ingredient needed to improve receptiveness to technology and to improve field crews’ willingness to use the technology? Three little words, also sure to drive terror into the IT department: organizational change management (OCM). OCM is a lot of things to a lot of people, but it seeks to align all of the stakeholders in the new technology—the project implementation team, lines of business and the field crews. By making field crews a part of the process, they learn how tools can make their jobs easier and they can participate and provide input. They have a say in how the technology is deployed, rather than having it forced on them.

 

Field Applications

 

Some business processes work well in the back office, but in a distributed organization, some business processes work best when used in the field. From crew management to data collection, field-based applications can increase productivity.

Mobile work force management allows field crews to receive updated work instructions and the critical information they need to perform their work. Combined with automated vehicle location, mobile work force management allows crew locations to be known—serving purposes that range from optimization of routing and logistics to safety. In the event of an injury, emergency support can be routed quickly and efficiently. This is one of the critical areas where OCM becomes important.

Field technology also facilitates asset inspection and maintenance programs. Rather than collecting information on paper forms that can be misplaced or that form a backlog of information to be entered in the database, field technology allows personnel to directly enter and immediately use the data. This is critical in moving toward a reliability-centered maintenance (RCM) program. Access to timely data allows personnel to analyze information and determine capital spending in subsequent years. This can occur only when field crews are given the proper technology.

 

Form Factors

 

Field computing form factors can vary, and carefully evaluating the pros and cons of form factors can influence field technology’s success or failure. A utility must consider the applications to be deployed, as well as the costs and benefits to be gained from the technology.

Basic field applications often can be deployed on a PDA. Combined with a GPS, the PDA can provide a capable platform that is particularly suited for field inventories and condition assessment. Applications can be designed so that field workers have limited options that are readily selected through point and click. Many PDA devices have text recognition as well, and field workers also can enter comments and notes. This feature should be the exception rather than the rule. Nonstandard entry requires additional entry time, slowing field crews and discouraging them from using the tools. PDA devices have the advantage of low total cost of ownership—their acquisition cost is low, and generally they have fewer issues with the operating system or software patches, as well as security and virus protection. They provide limited screen real estate, however. They might be suitable for data entry for highly focused applications, but they will not be ideal for large-scale geographic information systems (GIS) data editing in the field (such as field design).

Laptop computers are bulky and cumbersome in the field, but tablet computers offer the ability to be used in a slate mode, which does not require a keyboard. Field crews still can use the point-and-click paradigm in field applications that have specific questions and limited sets of answers. They also will have text recognition and more screen real estate for mapping and GIS based interfaces. This allows field workers to query for and enter data that is associated with a particular locations. For example, an inspection program may deploy a GIS-based map of the service territory and the crews can mark up, or redline, the map. This interface may be more intuitive to the field staff because they are already well-versed in marking up and making notes and sketches on maps. The downside to tablet computers is that they are more expensive because of higher hardware and software costs and increased maintenance costs.

In discussing field-based technology, whether or not to choose ruggedized equipment is also important. Ruggedized equipment is designed for field use. It is impact-resistant and often optimized for viewing in bright sunlight. These advantages come in the form of higher hardware costs and often in reduced capabilities—ruggedizing equipment often makes use of older processors, less memory and slower bus. Ruggedized equipment can considerably slow more business-oriented equipment and might not have the required horsepower to run all desired applications.

Finally, software and data are important, as well. Applications designed for field use will be more readily embraced by field workers than desktop applications that are simply moved to the field. Because this equipment often will be operated by stylus and not a keyboard and mouse, field applications must be kept simple and should be easily accessed by a small set of options. Menus should be no more than a few items deep, and, ideally, field workers should be able to access the most common applications directly from a control panel of buttons within the application. In addition to software design issues, data and synchronization issues also arise. Field technology is of no use if it cannot be updated with timely data or if data cannot be retrieved from it.

Again, keeping user interaction to a minimum is key. The field computing device should dock when it is cradled, or perhaps when near a hot sync location—many utilities locate these in conjunction with a high-speed backbone in substations. A field user should know that he or she needs only to cradle the device, or at most, initiate with a single button. Multistep synchronization operations will create frustration and resistance.

 

Organizational Change Management

 

OCM is the key to a successful deployment. Without OCM, a deployment is almost certain to fail. Field crews are not known for their ready willingness to embrace technology or change. For many, technology is seen as an intrusive burden and a waste of time. At worst, technology might be perceived as threatening. The secret to success is to include field personnel early and often through a comprehensive OCM program.

Include field crew representatives in the design discussion. Identify advocates and make them part of the team. They can become power users and mentors. Mentors are an important part of an OCM effort for many reasons. As colleagues of the field staff, they are best able to identify with their needs and issues. They are the first line responders. Building a mentor program will provide significant return on investment. Mentors also are better able than most of the field staff to communicate to management the challenges and opportunities faced with the technology adoption.They possess the language to facilitate communications between field workers and IT staff.

It is important to identify stakeholders in technology deployment, including field line of business management as well as upper management. This includes identifying positively and negatively aligned stakeholders. It is important to ensure that the positively aligned stakeholders remain advocates and to convert the negatively aligned stakeholders to a neutral position. Exposing mentors and stakeholders to the tools early and often will help generate excitement and set expectations about what the tools will and will not do. To field staff, these are tools, not toys. IT staff sometimes focus more on applications and not enough on solutions. It is important field crews understand the value of the tools for their own improved efficiency and for the whole organization. Often if management teach field workers the role of data management in the whole organization, they will become more receptive.

Beyond mentoring, formal training is also key. Although field crews might be disdainful of training and courses, they are important. Training always should be hands-on because these people will use the tools daily. “Garbage in, garbage out” applies; field crews will give back what you put into them.

Finally, it is important to consider how the new tools will revise business processes. Deploying field tools without a stated, understood business process efficiency improvement is a wasted investment. Business processes might change as a result of the deployment, and they should. Planning for changes in business processes should be at the forefront of the implementation and part of its design phase.

With careful planning around tools, processes and people, the introduction of technology to field workers doesn’t need to be terrifying—maybe only a little scary.

Erik Shepard, PMP, is principal of Waterbridge Consulting and provides expertise and project management for utility systems integration initiatives. He has more than 18 years’ experience helping clients realize returns on their transformation technology investments. He has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and master’s and doctorate degrees in geography.

 

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