Transforming the Utility Industry: The Transition from Task-Oriented to Information Workers

I was at an executive briefing this week in Europe for one of the largest Utilities in the world. During a presentation concerning the “New World of Work,” I turned to the Group CIO of the Utility and asked him this question: “How many of your company’s employees are information workers?”

The CIO looked at me, thought about it and said, “maybe a third.” He thought some more and said that it depends on how you define the term “Information worker” as it could be more.

By information worker I am referring to the what Bill Gates described in his executive email a couple of years ago in the New World of Work where it’s less about people getting access to the information they need but more about making sense of the information they have -- giving them the ability to focus, prioritize and apply their expertise to solve problems. Another interesting viewpoint is offered by Mark Bower who writes about Information Worker, Knowledge Worker, Structured Task Worker and Data Entry Worker. Question for readers of this Blog: How do you define an information worker in a Utility?

My discussion with the CIO continued during the presentation and we came to the conclusion that the Utilities industry is in transition, moving from a task-oriented workforce where people go out to do a specific job with finite information toward one that is truly information worker based with additional information and collaboration available for real-time problem solving. What’s bringing on this change?

More and more the Utility business is being driven towards becoming an information business. There are lots of factors coming together forcing this transformation -- climate change, regulatory uncertainty, aging workforce and assets, security of supply, globalization and price pressures. We will talk more about these in a future blog but these factors are forcing Utilities to put solutions in place that not only collect a lot more information about their business operations but provides enterprise wide visibility into data, role base productivity and interdepartmental collaboration for better decisions by their people.

For example, in the transmission and distribution field workers are becoming better equipped with communications and collaboration technologies. Our Utilities Team has developed several scenarios that demonstrate how a traditional task field worker becomes part of a problem-solving information network. Thus, their transition from task-oriented to information worker.

As one example of this transformation process we created a simulation in which a new network transformer and its associated network protector is being installed to address capacity constraints on the underground low voltage mesh network serving a major city. Every time the transformer is energized, the protector trips. Using her MOBILE device, the crew chief initiates a SEARCH request to find some help so she can pinpoint the problem. The search request leverages the utility’s BI capability to kick off an automated workflow to identify the most appropriate technical resource aka the most experienced person available to help. This leverages the notion of “presence” provided by unified communications.

In this case, the underground engineer for the central operations group is notified of the issue. Leveraging the asset management system, he immediately does a search on prior related issues and finds that the reverse current polarizing relays are the likely culprits. He pulls up the protector manual and then sets up an IM session with the crew chief. He tells the crew chief that he’d like to look at the relays in the protector. The crew chief asks the technician to put on the visor camera and set up a live visual feed for the engineer. AHA – The engineer compares what he’s seeing with the manual sees that the relays were installed backwards.

Problem solved in about an hour!

The current task-oriented worker environment takes a better part of a day to solve this problem. The engineer doesn’t get brought in until after several radio conversations and various phone calls. The engineer must first find the appropriate manual and drawings on a shelf somewhere. He has to go get a car and go to the site. He doesn’t have any experience with this as he’s only 6 months out of college. He spends a hour or so rifling through the schematic drawings and the manual trying to figure it out. The engineering manager hears about the situation via the grapevine and decides to get in a car and go down to the site and see what’s going on. When he gets there, he asks the engineer if he’s looked to see if the relays were installed backwards as he ran across that situation when he was the underground engineer about 20 years ago. This is just one example of transforming the Utility workforce from a task worker to a true information worker. Special thanks to Larry Kuhl of the Microsoft Utilities team for this scenario!

Continuing my conversation with the Group CIO, we realized that the Utility business which was once a system of metal wires and metal devices is being driven to be a business that is dependent on information and much of it in either real or near time. Generation fleet performance systems, smart metering, smart grids, energy efficiency and customer stickiness in competitive markets are just a handful of the drivers that are propelling Utilities into the “New World of Work” and making the task-oriented worker a relic of the past. – Jon