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IT and executive champions play crucial role

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JUST OVER A YEAR AGO, TWO ELECTRIC UTILITIES THAT ARE part of the Exelon Corporation-ComEd and PECO-delivered on an ambitious project to provide a mobile dispatch and workforce management platform that impacted virtually all aspects of the utilities' operations.

Successfully integrating technological applications and capabilities represented more than just add-on benefits to customer service capabilities; it restructured-with an aim toward greater efficiency-how line and dispatch personnel interface, how communications work and how response times to outage reporting, metering services and other responsibilities improve. The mobile dispatch solution was a multi-year endeavor and is the story of a well-thought-out business case that articulated the value of more effective communications and improved customer service.

A compelling argument first
Mark Browning, IT director for Exelon Business Services in Chicago, explained that securing approval (and the financial investment) for an initiative that would ultimately outfit thousands of vehicles with mobile dispatch terminals, as well as deliver an array of new technological applications and dispatch stations, meant delivering a compelling argument for how the utilities and customers stood to benefit.

Much was at stake, given the magnitude of the project. Chicago-based ComEd delivers electricity to approximately 3.8 million customers across northern Illinois, or nearly three-quarters of the state's population. Approval for mobile dispatch came in 2006-more than three years before the end product was delivered in December 2009.

Charleen Miller, project manager for the mobile dispatch workforce management system at ComEd, says there was a precedent for utilizing such applications-that in fact the project was a scale-up from applications that already existed and were in use by ComEd's metering teams. Implementing technologies wasn't a foreign concept, therefore, and new capabilities became available such as GPS, electronic dispatch of work orders to field teams as well as their status (e.g., ongoing, closed).

Beyond the availability of new applications and the information they delivered was communications via a dispatch infrastructure-personnel in need of outage-, geographic-or customer-related data had access to the technology or the means to capture it.

Browning points to the essentially horizontal nature of the mobile dispatch system as one key to the project's success or, as he says more simply, "trust and respect." Whether it was line or field personnel or leadership in need of information, the same tools, resources and, most importantly, access was available to all. "We make sure no one is left out," he said.

Change caused some concern
Of course one fundamental aspect of mobile dispatch was the significant impact on workforce management. Following a needs assessment of skill sets and technological know-how, personnel were trained and equipped with the knowledge needed to operate in the new technology-driven environment. Change on this scale caused some concern among personnel.

But, Miller said: "It was fortunate our workers clearly vocalized their hesitation, which allowed trainers to deliver learning in a manner that would be most effective. Some `superusers'-colleagues with existing familiarity with the technology-could go out with some members of less experienced field teams and work with them." As a result, a great deal of enthusiasm was generated about the new dispatch capabilities, about improved and quicker communications and also about data sharing and the ability to deliver benefits such as real-time responses to customers.

A shared sense of ownership
In addition to customized training, one key factor driving the success of mobile dispatch was the direct involvement of executive leadership who championed the cause. Vice presidents from ComEd and PECO participated in a steering committee to guide the project. Even if in only a limited way (i.e., through the metering teams), technology held a respected place in the utilities' operations and executive management willingly committed to furthering its applications to deliver business benefits of improved customer communications and operational efficiencies.

Finally, IT team members played a crucial role. Typically, IT will deliver end products and applications that respond to business needs. But by the very technical nature of IT expertise, there is the potential for not understanding broad strategic business goals. Project teams for mobile dispatch, however, spanned departments and incorporated a sophisticated array of personnel-including IT. This is typical for Exelon project teams, Browning said. Miller further explained that with executive leaders and line and dispatch team members collaborating, a shared sense of ownership led not only to greater understanding but also to active feedback regarding benefits unperceived in earlier stages of the initiative.

Although customers were not aware of the existence of mobile dispatch per se, they have noticed quicker, more thorough communications with the utilities. With cost savings projected to amount to more than $27 million by the end of 2012 (in line with targeted goals), ComEd and PECO have successfully maneuvered through a complex, technology-driven initiative that impressively responds more efficiently to the electricity needs of customers across Chicago and a great part of the state of Illinois.

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