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Crafting the perfect field worker

We all love the smart grid. It’s great. It’s marvelous. It’s a wave of the electric power future. But, there are still pockets within a utility that haven’t yet felt the full enlightenment of intelligent structures and software. For most utilities, the deployment and activities of field workers remains one of those dark pockets.

 We all talk about the consumer, how mobile applications can help customers know what they use from anywhere—from a smartphone at the airport, in the grocery store, on the back nine.

 But, often, that focus on customers leaves the bevy of possibilities that mobile applications (and mobilizing applications) can bring a field worker forgotten and neglected.

 Earlier this year, Kony sponsored an Intelligent Utility webcast titled “Crafting the perfect field worker,” featuring Tony Thomas, principal engineer with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (or the NRECA) and Jimmy Mendoza, retired business analyst with CPS Energy, that discussed options for enabling and enlightening utility field workers.  

 Sam Lakkundi, chief mobile officer with Kony, introduced the webcast and participated in the discussion toward the end of the hour. In his introduction, Lakkundi pointed out that a number of challenges are hindering field worker performance, including having to wait for critical information, being unable to locate remote assets, spending too much time on paperwork and dealing with inefficient work orders—all items that mobility developments can help those workers address.

 Addressing those challenges was at the heart of Jimmy Mendoza’s presentation. Mendoza started his CPS Energy career in November of 1977 as a trainee in fleet operations. After 22 years with fleet operations and wearing multiple hats from fleet coordinator to technical trainer, he moved on to the IT world. In November of 1999, CPS Energy undertook a project to implement SAP. Jimmy’s role was that of a trainer and plant maintenance SME (or subject matter expert). From there, he became a business analyst overseeing the implementation of various SAP IT-related projects, including several mobile solutions.  During his webcast presentation, he talked about SAP implementations and mobility to improve scheduling during overhauls and to streamline time entry (for field workers).

 CPS Energy’s challenges at the time included a 24-36 hour lag time to update daily schedules; indirect work order updates with multiple processes; juggling multiple plants, crews and shifts; and time entry that didn’t show up until two or three days later.

 As the utility purchased and installed a mobility system, they learned a number of lessons from the process, including the need to get consensus on the process, to streamline the project, to screen design flow and to create buy-in from other departments.

 “Consensus becomes key when designing mobile solutions,” Mendoza said. “Those business processes need to align with solutions.”

 Realizing that cross-department business process to mobile solutions was underlined in Tony Thomas’ presentation. Tony has over 30 years of experience with automation technologies ranging from factory floor automation, commercial/industrial distributed generation control and utility automation systems.  Tony currently serves as NRECA’s smart grid subject matter expert.  Tony’s utility background includes product/market development and senior management positions for the initial startup teams at 3 technology companies serving the utility industry.

 He discussed how the current field worker is required to be part lawyer, part psychologist, part IT person, part diplomat, part research assistant and part engineer. But, that’s not the end of the field worker’s evolution in Tony’s estimate. He thinks, as customers are pushed more toward answering machines and online portals, that the field worker will become the default face of the utility.

 “We talk about automation and driving customers to websites, but we all personally know the frustrations attached to that. The guy driving the truck around with your logo plastered across it then becomes your representative—the one utility person that they can talk to directly.”

 So, Thomas suggests having readily available all the digital gadgets that can get that representative information about location, assets, customer accounts and outages in near real time—be that a smart phone, a tablet, a mini tablet or a ruggedized computer with all the rights apps on it.

 To hear the full presentations and the lively question-and-answer discussion on a range of topics from the need for efficiency training on digital devices to emerging market predictions in mobility and the evolution of digital devices from “a stack” to a single unit, listen to the free webcast directly at its archived location online: http://www.energycentral.com/events/27455/Crafting-the-perfect-field-worker.

 SIDEBAR:

 All three speakers from the webcast were nice enough to take a series of questions about mobility and the field worker and give more in-depth insight into the topic.

 QUESTION: What do you think are the three most important things a utility field worker must have in the field to be a great company representative? 

 Thomas: The correct message, the right information and the ability to deliver that correct message.  Having said that, it’s critical to deliver information in a timely manner.  To do that, you’ve got to enable the field worker with the equipment that allows him to assess the situation, check in with the home office (or “mother ship”) and be able to respond with an appropriate response.  All that takes communication systems; it takes automation. And, many times, it will take handheld devices as many of the systems we rely on from day to day tend to go down with everything else when it’s critical. 

 QUESTION: What’s the best advice that you have for a utility looking to get started in the mobility arena?  What’s step number one that they need to do? 

 Lakkundi:  Step number one: Ensure that you have the proper processes in place for mobilization, and know what needs to be mobilized. You can mobilize an entire back-end form per se, but you have to choose specific processes that actually are beneficial for field workers.

 QUESTION: Is the customer service message getting down to the field worker? 

 Mendoza: More and more, yes.  We’re not in a competitive environment, but the field worker is going to be basically the only contact that the customer is going to have with the company representative, other than on the phone.  And, a phone is not a face-to-face meeting. And there’s more of an emphasis now than there was five or ten years ago.  There’s training that’s actually going on that is preparing the field worker to not confront, but to be the face of the utility so that he can adequately respond to the customer’s needs. 

 QUESTION: How important is buy-in from other departments in the field worker mobility process?

 Thomas: Creating buy-in is absolutely critical. And you almost always have to do that through choices, giving the various departments a voice in what’s purchased.  They can stab you in the back constantly if you don’t. 

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