Ergon Energy is working through phase one of a major field force mobility rollout that will see it adapt a system pioneered by South East Queensland counterpart Energex for its own environment.
The electricity distributor is also about to commence a cost benefit analysis for a second phase of work, which is expected to run between 2015 and 2017.
In total, the huge mobility project will consist of four work phases, broken down into a number of work streams.
"We've found that we really need to think of each phase in streams," Ergon Energy's field force automation manager Steffi Harbert told the recent Field Service Management 2015 conference.
"There are a number of streams - including the device stream, the dispatch stream, the business and process integration stream, the systems and technology integration stream".
Phase three of the project is scheduled for a mid-2017 start running through 2018, and phase four is presently anticipated to occur in 2019-2020.
Neither the utility nor its shared services provider, SPARQ Solutions, is underestimating the effort required to make the project a success.
"An ICT change such as this is essentially a change management program," Harbert said.
"If we want people to embed and embrace the new ways of working, we need to manage that change effectively to take them from old ways of thinking and working to new ways. That's critical to success."
SPARQ Solutions workforce automation stream lead Colin Wilson agreed. "One thing that's been very noticeable about this project is it has been an ICT project but it's very much embedded in a change project.
"Ergon has actually been making some massive organisational changes at the same time as we're doing the ICT work, so it's not about just putting in systems and seeing benefits if they come."
Scoping a blueprint
SPARQ Solutions acts as the IT department for both Ergon Energy and Energex. The utilities have a 50 percent stake each in SPARQ, and the shared service provider's CEO is on the executive of each utility, effectively acting as each's CIO.
Energex took the plunge with field force mobility in 2006 - going live in 2007.
To determine its own path to field force mobility, Ergon Energy participated in a "blueprinting exercise" with counterpart Energex in approximately 2010.
The exercise produced a series of "value drivers" for field force mobility, including customer service, data quality and collection, field force productivity, admin reduction for schedulers and supervisors, and improved outage response times and safety.
"The customer service work essentially comes through the retailers in the market," he said. "We get a B2B request basically saying, 'Go to this property, turn the power on or turn it off. It's very high volume work - a field crew can do a number of jobs in a day."
Data quality was an important driver because "putting field systems in tends to show up the differences between what's out in the real world and what your backend systems tell you you have", Wilson said.
And the need to improve outage response times is critical.
"Quite often we'll have a number of fault calls coming in from customers and we need to actually take all those requests, interpret them, and then translate that into actual field work," Wilson said.
"The field work might actually mean five different crews going out to different locations to do triage on the network while we determine where the real fault is and what we need to fix it."
Ergon used these value drivers to frame an expression of interest (EOI) process, which it ran from November 2012 to May 2013.
The EOI helped build internal awareness "of what was happening in the marketplace", and enabled Ergon to scope potential systems that could address its requirements as well as the size of the proposed deployment.
Testing the market
Once the EOI process wrapped up, Ergon invited management consultancy Litmus Group to facilitate a workshop with the utility's executives and board to define mobility maturity goals.
"What this exercise did was help build broad understanding and acceptance of where we currently are and also buy-in to the program of work and the size of that program of work to get where we want to be," Harbert said.
The exercise would enable Ergon to move ahead with key technology decisions.
"In July 2013 the decision was made that we should implement the Energex field force auction solution into Ergon Energy for both customer service order work and fault response work - so that's our short order, high volume work," Habert said.
"When we said that we should deploy that model, that included systems and processes. The term was often used to forklift it in, but we've got different systems that we interface it with, so we've done our best but it's not always so simple."
One of the main advantages for Ergon in adopting the Energex model was that it was proven.
"Energex had ironed out a lot of the bugs and wrinkles for us so it lowered our risk and enabled us to realise benefits earlier," Harbert said.
However, the mobile maturity modelling would also allow Ergon to put together a five-year roadmap for field force mobility.
"We took all of that information [from the Litmus Group exercise] and we worked it through with the business," Harbert said.
"We talked to about 50 or 60 people in the business to get their views on it, some of them multiple times. That then helped us plot out the logical sequence and structure for the mobility roadmap, and we were able to also do some high level cost and benefits analysis."
The five-year "indicative roadmap" was accepted by Ergon's executive team in May 2014, on the understanding that the project leads "would need to go back and do the cost benefit analysis" of it in finer detail.
The roadmap's existence is also intended to mitigate the risk of internal groups deploying point solutions or devices to field crews outside of the official field force project.
Ergon has equipped 490 field crews to date with Panasonic Toughpads in phase one of the project. It has also centralised job dispatch and rolled the system into 61 depots which handle customer service orders.
As at the end of February 2015, around 40,000 service orders [had been] pushed through the system, Harbert said.
In addition, fault response functionality is being implemented at present and is expected to go live shortly.
As phase one neared completion, Ergon has turned its attention to future phases and achieving the end state set out in its five-year plan.
"Once field crews have got a mobile device in their hands, there is so much more they can do with it," Harbert said.
"So what we wanted to do is work through some of those opportunities and think about how we can we optimise that investment going forward and do it in a way so that it is broadly understood and supported."
SPARQ is supporting this process by exploring how systems might support "the next generation" of Ergon's business.
"We're starting to look at what sort of business models we support," Wilson said. "Do we do more B2B stuff? Can we deliver applications to a BYO device?
"In the future we increasingly see our field systems as possibly more of an extension of the back office systems. They are some of the challenges we're working on."