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"With a strong business case, a thorough technical design, and diligent change management, utilities can successfully deploy the new tablet technology to their mobile workforce."

 

Philippe Tellier, pa expert in Utilities

Successfully deploying tablets to a utility’s mobile workforce

Over the last few years, tablets have become an increasingly popular productivity device for businesses. Forrester Research estimates that tablets and smartphones make up about 25 percent of computers used for work globally, replacing PCs. Tablets, being lightweight and equipped with intuitive touch features, are perfectly suited for mobile operations. Utility companies, which typically employ hundreds of field operators to carry out customer-focused service orders (such as meter exchanges) and maintenance work orders, seek to leverage the ease of use and mobility of tablets to increase the productivity of their field workers.

The breadth of apps available on markets such as the App Store or Google Play suggests that the tablet market is a very mature ecosystem. However, this ecosystem is usually not in place in corporate organisations. Tablets fundamentally differ from conventional IT devices such as laptops and desktops, requiring that business applications be tailored for tablets accordingly. Tablets often require new infrastructure components and tools that need new support. In addition, the training requirements are very different for tablets. As mentioned in a recent WSJ article, “companies are making a lot of the same mistakes - from not researching ahead of time how workers can best use the devices, to underestimating the costs and the additional challenges tablets present for IT networks.” On the whole, enterprise tablet deployment for field operations can become very challenging very quickly, if not properly planned and executed.

Utilities can avoid the common pitfalls in tablet deployment and properly prepare for this technological transition:  With a strong business case, a thorough technical design, and diligent change management, utilities can successfully deploy the new tablet technology to their mobile workforce.

Build a strong business case – financially and operationally

At first glance, replacing a $3,000 fully equipped and ruggedized laptop with a $500 consumer-grade tablets seems like a no-brainer. Well, think again. While tablets help realise immediate capital savings, they often have higher operational expenses (device management, mobile security, etc.), higher failure rates and shorter replacement cycles when compared to laptops. Utilities should first perform a TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) analysis in order to understand overall costs and validate savings. A recent TCO analysis we conducted for a US utility showed lower hardware and data costs for tablets but higher software costs due to new infrastructure and applications.

Many organisations turn to tablets as a means to increase productivity for field activities. While tablets with their intuitive touch interfaces can expedite tasks such as click-and-go work orders, they can become more cumbersome for heavy data entry and analysis operations. Popular productivity tools such as Excel can quickly become unproductive. Hence utilities must run a pilot deployment with a small group of users to validate the operational business case as well as identify/pre-empt showstoppers for the enterprise wide rollout. A recent pilot highlighted productivity gains in everyday high-volume work order completion thanks to a native tablet app, but productivity losses for less-frequently performed collaboration tasks (such as emails and Excel spreadsheet completion).

Put the right IT infrastructure in place

A comprehensive technical design is needed to effectively integrate the new technology with existing systems.

  • Platform, device and accessories: Enterprises have a variety of tablet platforms to choose from. For example, iOS offers an integrated and easily manageable single platform and device environment whereas Android offers a flexible and more customisable multi-platform and device setup. In our experience, these choices are often driven by the ecosystem in which the company operates. As an example, the work management system of one of our clients was only supported on Android devices. Considering that field workers spent 75% of their time completing work orders, Android became an obvious choice.

  • Applications: Utilities must ensure that both business applications (e.g. work management systems) as well as third party applications are supported and tested for everyday operations.

  • Infrastructure and security: Many existing infrastructure components like encryption, authentication, anti-virus and VPN will need to be updated/upgraded to support tablets as they represent a higher-risk endpoint for the enterprise due to the lack of maturity of the platform, the openness of some mobile operating systems (such as Android) and the increased mobility. Additionally tablets will need new infrastructure to host new applications such as a Mobile Device Management (MDM) system which is essential for inventory management, policy enforcement, software distribution and security management. As an example, one of our utility clients had to purchase a new VPN appliance to provide the right security controls, configure ActiveSync on their Exchange Server to enable native email, procure a new MDM solution for security and provisioning reasons, upgrade their Citrix servers to support tablets and install a different anti-virus software.

Manage change effectively with the right training and support in place

Finally, while change management is critical to the success of any transformational initiative, there are some unique aspects of change management that should be emphasised during tablet rollout.

Training both end users and IT support staff should not be overlooked. Since tablets represent a fundamental change from laptops in the interaction mechanism, training should focus on basic device usage in addition to business applications (which may look very different if they are optimised for tablets). As a tablet rollout not only means new hardware but also new operating systems and apps, the IT support team should have extensive training and the right systems in place to effectively resolve tablet related issues. As most companies are used to a Windows environment, they will need to train their support staff in dealing with Android and/or iOS operating systems. During a pilot rollout, we uncovered that tablet support issues were mostly training and software based as opposed to laptop issues which were mostly hardware related.

Lastly tablets raise important security concerns since they are more prone to theft, rely on less mature (and sometime more open) operating systems and have new features like camera and GPS. Hence it is important to involve groups such as Legal and HR early in the project and ensure that the right security measures and policies are in place before deployment.

PA Consulting Group has deep expertise working with utilities clients. For over 25 years, we’ve helped our utilities clients understand their challenges, define strategic responses, and drive effective change in their organisations to successfully deliver new strategies. We are currently helping a large US water utility plan the rollout of tablets to their 600+ field operators.


To find out how PA can help your utility maximise the use of tablets across your organisation, please contact us now

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Anita Chandraker
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