Automating Utility Field Service - A Single System for Managing Everything from Short Duration Tasks to Complex Assignments

(Originally published in the November/December 2002 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness.)

By Jack McAvoy

The Utility market was one of the first vertical industry segments to embrace wireless technology, and has since grown to the point where Gartner Dataquest reports that an "estimated 50 percent of the field workers in the utility industry [today are] using some form of wireless data". In fact, the analyst firm believes this segment to be "more likely than other major industry group" to have wireless LAN already incorporated into their networks.

Among the principal reasons that Gartner cites as having helped this segment become one of the quickest adapters of wireless technology are that it has been targeted well by technology-based application vendors and network providers; there are a growing number of segment-specific applications continually becoming available; and the prospects for achieving a rapid return-on-investment (ROI) are significantly high. For these reasons, the Utility segment has emerged as "one of the bright points in the wireless data world".

In 2001 there were an estimated 400,000 mobile workers in the domestic (i.e., U.S.) Utility segment. Gartner defines a mobile worker as "a worker who is away from the office or desk more than 20 percent of the time, has a job with no desk or office, or who must perform work that requires mobile communications". According to the firm, this number is expected to increase substantially as the "complexity and verity of the applications grow, as high-speed data services further enable existing applications, and as new uses for mobile data terminals and services emerge".

Other prime stimulants for growth in the segment are expected to be the "further enablement of existing field service with graphics and repair blueprints", and related applications, such as automated meter reading and wireless bill payment. The prospects for growth in the segment remain high, and the benefits associated with using a single technology solution to automate the full range of field activities - from short-duration tasks to complex assignments - is significant.

The Need for Automated Utility Field Service Capabilities
Utilities of all types and sizes are faced with a host of complex challenges in today's volatile environment. Regardless of whether they conduct their business only in a small municipality or as part of a large investor-owned enterprise, or whether they support their customers in the United States or anywhere else in the world, these challenges are very real - and require the appropriate tools to manage properly.

Among the most pressing needs presently being faced by the Utility industry are the ability to:

  • Manage the full range of services they offer (e.g., from meter services; to installation, maintenance, and construction services, etc.);
  • Oversee their widely distributed geographical field workforce (including internal employees, as well as contractors and sub-contractors);
  • Improve operational efficiency (e.g., by automating call handling and dispatch processes, responding to calls faster, etc.); and
  • Meeting customers' rising expectations (by providing both quicker, and better, service).
Ultimately, in order to ensure that they are equipped to meet these customer needs head-on, utilities must find the most appropriate tools that will allow them to get the right person, with the right skills, to the right place, at the right time, with the right parts, and the right information - all cost-effectively! Only by coordinating each of these activities with one another will they have any real chance of effectively getting the job done. Anything less will be interpreted by their customers as failing to meet their needs, and not living up to their expectations.

According to William K. Pollock, President of Strategies For GrowthSM, a Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm, "If ever there was a segment that required a single, integrated solution that addresses both the very simple and the extremely complex work order-related tasks, it is the Utility segment. In today's environment where utilities are competing against each other for customers and revenues, only an integrated service management solution, supported by a vendor with segment-specific expertise, can effectively get the job done."

For this reason, we believe we bring to the utilities marketplace an effective, segment-focused application that meets all of the enterprise's tactical mobile needs, the unification - or replacement - of their point solutions, and the deep experience in providing field solutions to industries where service has driven advancements in technology, as well as improvements in profitable business processes.

Still, regardless of their current state of field service automation, at the end of the day, every Utility must ask itself some variation of the following set of questions:

  • Were there unnecessary truck rolls?
  • Was there unreasonable overtime?
  • Was safety compromised?
  • Did parts vanish?
  • Is paperwork missing?
  • Did customers complain?
  • Did we get the job done?
Most importantly, the question must be asked whether anything was learned from the day's experience - either good or bad - and whether the currently-installed field service management system has afforded the organization the best opportunity to optimize its business processes for the goal of facilitating improvement.

The Utilities Functional Chain
The Utilities Functional Chain is a high-level representation of the major processes that are conducted in the Utility segment (Figure 1). The five principal functions are:

  • Production
  • Trading
  • Transmission
  • Distribution
  • Sales
While the ViryaNet application is well-suited to address the needs associated with all of these functions, the primary focus with relationship to customer-facing needs and field issues is more directly related to the functions of Transmission, Distribution and Sales.

Figure 1

Within the Utility segment, there exists a wide array of systems that generate work orders to address the broad variety of field work that is required to run the business (Figure 2). For example, in support of the Transmission function, each utility must operate a network control system that includes:

  • Engineering Planning
  • Construction Management
  • Outage Management
Figure 2

In supporting the Distribution function, the resource planning system must include:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)/Enterprise Asset Management (EAM)
  • Work Management
  • Mobile Work Execution
And finally, in support of the Sales function, there are many customer care and Customer Information Systems (CIS) applications required to assist in managing the overall customer relationship - from the initial call request, to its closure and reporting.

It is also important to recognize that there is often a great deal of overlap from one function to another. For example, the tasks generally associated with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the Transmission/Engineering Planning function may also relate to key distribution functions as well.

However, in the Utility segment, unlike the more traditional high-tech equipment field service segments, each of the functional components and supporting systems that create work orders for the organization may also be categorized with respect to their specific degrees of complexity. For example, while some of the Network Control (i.e., Outage Management), Resource Planning (i.e., ERP/EAM), and Customer Care (i.e., CIS) functions essentially consist of "short duration" tasks, others are mostly associated with longer-term, more "complex assignments" (i.e., Network Control's Engineering Planning and Construction Management; and Resource Planning's ERP/EAM and Work Management). Of all the major functions, only the various ERP/EAM task components may be reflective of either short duration or complex assignment tasks.

While this categorization may be somewhat of an over-simplification of the real world, for the purposes of comparison, most of the tasks managed and automated by field service management systems can be easily classified as either "short duration" or "complex assignments".

The Continuum of Work Orders
There is also a continuum of work orders that moves across the spectrum from short duration to complex assignments. Short duration work orders typically include Customer Information, Outage Management, and some ERP/EAM tasks. Complex assignment work orders typically include Work Management, Engineer Planning, Construction Management, and the larger ERP/EAM tasks.

While some of these work orders may involve tasks as simple as handling a customer calling in to the call center to request a home energy audit, they may also be as complex as managing the expansion of the utility's overall infrastructure to accommodate a major new subdivision that is being developed within its geographic service area. Regardless of which type of work orders may be generated, one thing is for certain - specific applications must be counted on to deploy the required resources to satisfy the open work orders. While each division within the utility will have its own specialized field staff, it is not uncommon in many situations for divisions to share company resources - thereby transforming a common system into an even more valuable tool.

Leading Up to a Single System for Supporting All Work Orders
The typical applications that support the execution of short-duration work orders derived from the customer information and outage management systems include:

  • Advanced Scheduling,
  • Dispatching,
  • Mobile, and
  • Business Intelligence for management reporting.
The problem that most utilities presently face with respect to these short duration tasks is typically centered on an inefficient schedule and dispatch capability cross-divisionally, which ultimately precludes inter-divisional information sharing and efficient resource management.

All work orders, whether they are derived from short duration or complex assignments, require support from industry-standard scheduling, dispatch, mobile, and intelligence functionality. However, while most utilities have been able to manage their short-duration tasks fairly successfully by equipping their field technicians with mobile devices, the same cannot be said for the way in which they have been able to handle the complex assignment side of their business. The need for integrated systems certainly exists; but the systems themselves have not yet been widely deployed.

Within the complex assignment environment, additional functionality is required to meet the full spectrum of the organization's needs. These include:

  • A service portal to provide a communications medium for managers, subcontractors, and field technicians;
  • Service order/call logging functionality to initiate complex work orders, often derived from project planning tools;
  • Flexible, configurable workflows to ensure the safe, cost-effective, and timely completion of projects;
  • Logistics knowledge relating to the availability and whereabouts of parts and supplies to avoid costly delays; and
  • RMA and depot repair processes required to track in-house repair of faulty equipment as an extension of the ERP and EAM systems, which are typically more common in plant management.
Until now, utilities have not had a single solution available that is able to execute all of the requirements of scheduling and dispatch, let alone the needs of more complex assignments that include workflow, logistics, and repair. However, we believe that the use of a single solution that addresses all types of work orders - from short duration to complex assignments - will yield real and measurable benefits to the Utility segment (Figure 3).

Figure 3

There are many benefits associated with the use of a single solution for supporting all types of work orders, including:

  • The utility will be able to standardize its processes, people, and information on a single web-based platform. This will ensure efficiency and consistency.
  • Division heads will be able to pool and share their respective technologies and resources, resulting in the ability to optimize their cross-divisional resources.
  • Users will be able to easily scale up or down to accommodate any of the needs of their various field force divisions (e.g., engineering and construction, trouble and outage, field service orders, operations and maintenance, etc).
  • Users will be able to improve the flow of information, internal-to-external, external-to-internal, and between and among the many members that comprise their respective service communities (e.g., customers, subcontractors, and staff).
  • Generally, the total cost of ownership will decline, as a direct result of lower support and implementation costs.
  • Users will be better positioned for growth, and meeting the demands of tomorrow.
The ViryaNet Service Hub Integrated Solution for the Utility Segment
For more than a dozen years, ViryaNet's applications have automated the complex field activities of organizations in a variety of demanding industries. Our web-based technology and applications are perfectly suited for utility companies as they provide an integrated solution for both the simple, short-duration tasks and the more complex assignments that are characteristic of the segment.

To the best of our knowledge, no other vendor presently offers an application that addresses the total challenges of both the short duration tasks and the complex assignments, where we have had a great wealth of expertise. Our recent acquisition of iMedeon has also provided us with the opportunity to enhance our historical mobile technology, deepen our process expertise in the Utility industry, and develop partnerships with other leading, complementary industry vendors.

Many leading industry analysts have endorsed our model for an integrated solution for the Utility segment. Michael Maoz of Gartner believes that "a mobile solution that supports meter services as well as complicated work management issues will be of high value to customers." Marc McCluskey of AMR states that "with the iMedeon acquisition, users get a strong alternative to [competitive offerings], an alternative with a proven work and scheduling application." William K. Pollock of Strategies For GrowthSM concurs that "Only a solution that effectively addresses both the short duration tasks and the complex assignments that face utilities everyday will ultimately have a chance at wide industry acceptance - and ViryaNet has that solution."

Our flagship product - ViryaNet Service Hub - provides the technology platform that allows utilities to (Figure 4):

  • Integrate and unite all of the required systems and applications across their entire operations (accomplished using an appropriate Integration Server as pictured on the right-hand side of the illustration);
  • Provide a single view of information using the Service Portal (on the left-hand side of the illustration), as well as a mobile computing platform that supports any device, over any network;
  • Flexibly configure business processes using our Service Workflow tools and editors; and
  • Access a centralized data mart for real-time reporting.
Figure 4

In addition, our applications, deployed from Service Hub, enable utilities around the world to:

  • Manage their workforces and work orders;
  • Schedule and dispatch technicians, and receive real-time reports from field engineers, using state-of-the-art mobile technology and advanced scheduling algorithms;
  • Track equipment under warranty or contract;
  • Manage spare parts; and
  • Automate their repair depot processes.
The ViryaNet solution is a pure web-based application. Its user interface is written in HTML. No applets are installed, and the portal application can run on a web browser connected to the Internet through either LAN or dial-up connections. The foundation of Service Hub is IBM's WebSphere, the industry-leading Java Application Server, which provides an industrial strength, scalable platform on both the UNIX and NT families.

The mobile component of the solution is also state-of-the-art, and supports all popular devices and networks. XML, which is rapidly becoming the standard in the software industry, is used for integration. Service Hub uses Oracle as its database.

We believe the factors that differentiate ViryaNet's offering and commitment to the Utility segment may be summarized as follows:

  • We already possess a deep industry understanding of the Utility segment;
  • Our mobile computing technology and feature-rich applications support the full range of service - from meter services, to construction projects;
  • Our technology is used and proven by world-class organizations the world over; and
  • Our powerful partnerships enable us to round out our offering with total product, consulting, and integration capabilities.
Gartner research cites the utilities industry as being characterized by "having significant numbers of field service workers and an increasing number of field sales and knowledge workers". It further states that "in an increasingly competitive labor market, enterprises must learn how to derive higher productivity from knowledge workers, sales and services personnel in addition to differentiating business offerings and operations". We believe that the ViryaNet Service Hub solution - designed specifically to address both the simple and complex needs of the organization - is the perfect match for powering field service automation solutions for the Utility segment.

ViryaNet Packs Two Cases of Success Stories - One Simple, and One Complex

Simple, Short Duration Work Order Case Study

The division of a large municipal utility had been using an outdated legacy workforce management application for many years. Their work focused primarily on meter services, involving turn-offs, turn-ons, change-outs, and service checks. However, they realized that they needed a new system - one that would leverage their current CIS application, provide real-time updates from that application, and distribute work orders from the system to their field staff situated across several divisions.

Their ultimate goal was to improve the productivity of their field staff. Thus, a state-of-the-art, mobile application and communications capability, both scalable and with real-time interfaces, was deemed as paramount to this division. Further, they wished to leverage - and expand the life of - their current system infrastructure (both CIS and wireless).

The solution deployed by ViryaNet was a J2EE-compliant application designed to support future corporate standards of web application servers. The system included advanced scheduling to route, balance, and optimize workloads. It also included a powerful communications infrastructure to support different business processes and a growing organization-wide infrastructure. XML-based interfacing was selected to allow for ease of integration into a legacy CIS system. Finally, an easy-to-use, flexible configuration design allowed the system to be expanded into the organization's other field force divisions.

The results were impressive. Automated scheduling resulted in a 35 percent reduction in driving mileage. Significant cost savings were also realized in support of the legacy wireless workforce management (WWFM) system. Also, very importantly, the potential to increase customer interactions through web-based functionality was facilitated.

Combined Short Duration/Complex Assignments Case Study

The nation's largest incumbent local exchange carrier, or ILEC, with more than 2,500 field engineers, faced many challenges - both of a short duration and complex assignments nature - that it was unable to meet with its existing workforce management environments. The short-duration tasks included:

  • Resolving customer issues in a timely manner to meet regulatory compliance;
  • Increasing market share through improved customer satisfaction; and
  • Providing new service offerings to customers, such as energy efficiency programs.
The complex assignments included:
  • Expanding the existing infrastructure, and ongoing network maintenance; and
  • Assimilating regional acquisitions.
The customer turned to ViryaNet to help solve these broad challenges with a single solution that could be integrated into their existing OSS environment. The primary goals of the solution were to enable the organization to:
  • Improve its resource utilization - by matching skills and imposing streamlined workflows;
  • Reduce travel time and costs - through route and resource optimization of existing parts, equipment and crews;
  • Provide an environment to monitor the day-to-day business - to avoid any domino-like delays;
  • Implement structured and consistent business rules - to handle large construction projects and traditional service work orders, often utilizing a shared resource pool;
  • Modify or incorporate best business practices - to easily assimilate new workers or acquired operations; and
  • Introduce mobile systems and efficient scheduling - to all business lines.
ViryaNet's Service Hub platform and suite of mobile workforce and work order management applications provided an Internet and wireless environment that allowed the organization to build structured workflows to meet their current processes, as well as tailoring them to meet specific workflows (e.g., based on service call types, or to accommodate changes in business procedures due to regulatory changes, best practices or acquisitions, etc.).

The Service Hub environment provided an integration platform to interface to various front- and/or back-office applications that generate work orders, including MS Project, Network monitoring applications, or CIS and CRM trouble ticket software.

The ability to provide web and wireless communication empowered the field personnel by providing access to data, enabling them to enter data once, on-site, accurately, resulting in the ability to analyze data quickly.

The ViryaNet software helped the organization improve its service operation, thereby providing it with a competitive advantage that it could leverage to attain its goals of growth and profitability. Some of the results included:

  • Increasing its resource utilization rate to 72 percent (40 percent in windshield time).
  • Improving regulatory compliance by 80 percent in the first month (using workflow-driven business processes).
  • Surpassing its 20 percent productivity goal.

Jack McAvoy is Vice President, Marketing at ViryaNet. He can be reached at (508) 490-5990, or via e-mail at

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