This year I’ve spent time with a number of electric utilities that are in the process of reassessing their workforce management strategies. Individually, these interactions could be seen as business-as-usual, regular software reviews. Collectively, however, they reveal some deeper changes in the industry — as invisible but important, perhaps, as the electricity that flows through our power lines.
Mobile Workforce Management is not a new topic for utilities, dating back 20 years or so. But as Navigant Consulting noted recently, “MWM solutions are undergoing a significant transformation. … Utilities’ increased focus on mobility and digitalization and the proliferation of consumer-grade devices … are facilitating a shift around the hardware and software used to coordinate mobile workforces.”
How utility companies handle this shift to mobile workforce management will depend on their ability to embrace three themes:
Collaboration, integration, and orchestration. Despite their mnemonic device, these themes are as critical to utility business leaders as they are to the CIO.
For much of its early history, utility mobile workforce management has focused on optimizing schedules. It’s an understandable focus for an industry grappling with high-volume, volatile work on mission-critical assets. Schedule optimization will remain a must-have capability for utilities, but as these deployments mature, and as new use cases emerge for which optimization is not as essential, we believe utilities will increasingly look to real-time communication and collaboration tools, such as Zinc, for the next wave of productivity gains.
Another way of framing this theme is as an evolution: from optimizing what work needs to be done when, to optimizing how that work is actually executed by field technicians and crews. Giving field technicians real-time access to the expertise of the broader workforce presents tremendous opportunities for utilities dealing with impending retirees, contractors, and the influx of a new generation of digital natives. Utilities have made abundantly clear this need for solutions that can be used in a workforce with a broad range of “tech savviness.”
To work in a utility environment, real-time collaboration apps will need to allow multiple modes of communication — 1:1 to group, audio to video, hotlines, top-down broadcast. They must also be secure, meet security approvals, and able to be centrally administered. If these are addressed, utilities stand to benefit significantly in terms of productivity (by communicating prep work prior to arrival at a site), as well as safety (by communicating storm warnings or safety equipment updates).
Utilities are increasingly focusing on how their current and future workforce management systems will integrate with other systems such as Asset Performance Management and Enterprise Asset Management, Mobile GIS, and Project Management. It’s an important topic, but also one prone to confusion due to overlap (real and perceived) between these systems.
The important questions for utilities to ask are:
- What is a particular system designed to do?
- What does it do well?
- What architecture of systems will most likely help me achieve my business objectives, be they productivity, safety, reliability, and customer satisfaction?
Let’s take an outage-related damage assessment as an example. An outage management system is the owner of outage relevant data and the source of outage related work. Once this work is requested, a field service management system can schedule and dispatch the work. And a mobile GIS system enables the assessment on a GIS map, with updates fed back into the work order management process.
If these systems are integrated well, they will be seamless for the worker resulting in higher worker productivity. But creating a different architecture for each of utility’s mobile apps is becoming unsustainable, which leads us to our third theme.
A utility line worker and a violin player might not appear to have much in common. But utility workforces and orchestras do share common characteristics and goals. Just as utilities have a diverse range of use cases — from meter installation to line inspection to vegetation management — orchestras have a breadth of instruments — from string to woodwind to brass. And both attempt to coordinate this diversity into a performance that delights customers.
Why is this analogy relevant? Because what’s often missing from a utility company’s workforce management strategy is something akin to the role of the conductor: a platform that orchestrates work across the entire taxonomy of use cases. Many utilities have a mobile app to address (for example) line inspection; in fact, some have dozens of mobile applications built to deal with a specific type of work. But to drive the next wave of worker productivity, utilities now need something to help these apps work “in concert.”
Utilities leading in digital transformation will utilize a single platform for orchestrating work on their networks. The platform itself won’t perform GIS updates, just as the conductor doesn’t play the violin. But it will provide a consistent approach to service execution and a single system of record for an asset’s service history. With utilities currently using on average 3 percent of their available data, breaking down the silos among different utility workflows will unleash enormous opportunities for analytics-driven insights to further drive productivity
As the grid becomes more complex and connected, utilities that master the “CIO” of Collaboration, Integration, Orchestration will lead the way in riding the next wave of Mobile Workforce Management.