Improving Call Center Performance Through Process Enhancements

The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, chances are you will end up somewhere else.” Yet many utilities possess only a limited understanding of their call center operations, which can prevent them from reaching the ultimate goal: improving performance and customer satisfaction, and reducing costs.

Utilities face three key barriers in seeking to improve their call center operations:

  • Call centers routinely collect data on “average” performance, such as average handle time, average speed of answer and average hold time, without delving into the details behind the averages. The risk is that instances of poor and exemplary performance alike are not revealed by such averages.
  • Call centers typically perform quality reviews on less than one-half percent of calls received. Poor performance by individual employees – and perhaps the overall call center – can thus be masked by insufficient data.
  • Calls centers often fail to periodically review their processes. When they do, they frequently lack statistically valid data to perform the reviews. Without detailed knowledge of call center processes, utilities are unlikely to recognize and correct problems.

There are, however, proven methods for overcoming these problems. We advocate a three-step process designed to achieve more effective and efficient call center operations: collect sufficient data; analyze the data; and review and monitor progress on an ongoing basis.

STEP 1: COLLECT SUFFICIENT DATA

The ideal sampling size is 1,000 randomly selected calls. This size call sample typically provides results that are accurate +/- 3 percent, with a more than 90 percent degree of confidence. These are typical levels of accuracy and confidence that businesses require before they are likely to undertake action.

The types of data that should be collected from each call include:

  • Call type, such as new service, emergency, bill payment or high bill, and subcall type.
  • Number of systems and/or screens used – for example, how many screens did it take to complete a new service request?
  • Actions taken during the call, such as greeting the customer, gathering customer- identity data, understanding the problem or delivering the solution.
  • Actions taken after the call – for example, entering data into computer systems, or sending notes or Emails to the customer or contact center colleagues.

Having the right tool can greatly facilitate data collection. For example, the call center data collection tool pictured in Figure 1 captures this information quickly and easily, using three push-button timers that enable accurate data collection.

When a call is being reviewed, the analyst pushes the green buttons to indicate which of 12 different steps within a call sequence is occurring. The steps include greeting, hold and transfer, among others. Similarly, the yellow buttons enable the analyst to collect the time elapsed for each of 15 different screens that may be used and up to 15 actions taken after the call is finished.

This analysis resembles a traditional “time and motion” study, because in many ways it is just that. But the difference here is that we can use new automated tools, such as the voice and screen capture tools and data collector shown, as well as new approaches, to gain new insights.

The data capture tool also enables the analyst to collect up to 100 additional pieces of data, including the “secondary and tertiary call type.” (As an example, a credit call may be the primary call type, a budget billing the secondary call type and a customer in arrears the tertiary call type.) The tool also lets the analyst use drop-down boxes to quickly collect data on transfers, hold time, mistakes made and opportunities noted.

Moreover, this process can be executed quickly. In our experience, it takes four trained employees five days to gather data on 1,000 calls.

STEP 2: ANALYZE THE DATA

Having collected this large amount of data, how do you use the information to reduce costs and improve customer and employee satisfaction? Again, having the right tool enables analysts to easily generate statistics and graphs from the collected data. Figure 2 shows the type of report that can be generated based on the recommended data collection.

The analytic value of Figure 2 is that it addresses the fact that most call center reports focus on “averages” and thus fail to reveal other important details. Figure 2 shows the 1,000 calls by call-handle time. Note that the “average” call took 4.65 minutes; however, many calls took a minute or less, and a disturbingly large number of calls took well over 11 minutes.

Using the captured data, utilities can then analyze what causes problem calls. In this example, we analyzed 5 percent of the calls (49 in total) and identified several problems:

  • Customer service representatives (CSRs) were taking calls for which they were inadequately trained, causing high hold times and inordinately large screen usage numbers.
  • IT systems were slow on one particular call type.
  • There were no procedures in place to intercede when an employee took more than a specified number of minutes to complete a call.
  • Procedures were laborious, due to Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regulations or – more likely – internally mandated rules.

This kind of analysis, which we describe as a “longest call” review, typically helps identify problems that can be resolved at minimal cost. In fact, our experience in utility and other call centers confirms that this kind of analysis often allows companies to cut call-handle time by 10 to 15 seconds.

It’s important to understand what 10 to 15 fewer seconds of call-handle time means to the call center – and, most importantly, to customers. For a typical utility call center with 200 or more CSRs, the shorter handle time can result in a 5 percent cost reduction, or roughly $1 million annually. Companies that can comprehend the economic value and customer satisfaction associated with reducing average handle time, even by one second, are likely to be better focused on solving problems and prioritizing solutions.

Surprisingly, the longest 5 percent of calls typically represent nearly 15 percent of the total call center handle time, representing a mother lode of opportunity for improvement.

Another important benefit that can result from this detailed examination of call center sampling data involves looking at hold time. A sample hold time analysis graph is pictured in Figure 3.

Excessive hold times tend to be caused by bad call routing, lengthy notes on file, unclear processes and customer issues. Each of these problems has a solution, usually low-cost and easily implemented. Most importantly, the value of each action is quantified and understood, based on the data collected.

Other useful questions to ask include:

  • What are the details behind the high average after-call work (ACW) time? How does this affect your call center costs?
  • How would it help budget discussions with IT if you knew the impact of such things as inefficient call routing, poor integrated voice response (IVR) scripts or low screen pop percentages?
  • What analyses can you perform to understand how you should improve training courses and focus your quality review efforts?

The output of these analyses can prove invaluable in budget discussions and in prioritizing improvement efforts, and is also useful in communicating proposals to senior management, CSRs, quality review staff, customers and external organizations. The data can also be the starting point for a Six Sigma review.

Utilities can frequently achieve a 20 percent cost reduction by collecting the right data and analyzing it at a sufficiently granular level. Following is a breakdown of the potential savings:

  • Three percent savings can be achieved by reducing longest calls by 10 seconds.
  • Five percent savings can be gained by reducing ACW by 15 seconds.
  • Five percent savings can be realized by improving call routing – usually by aligning CSR skills required with CSR skills available – by 15 seconds.
  • Three percent savings can be achieved by improving process for two frequent processes by 10 seconds each.
  • Three percent savings can be realized by improving IVR and screen pop frequency and quality of information by 10 seconds.
  • One percent savings can be gained by improving IT response time on selected screens by three seconds.

STEP 3: REVIEW AND MONITOR PROGRESS ON AN ONGOING BASIS

Although this white paper focuses on the data collection and analyses procedures used, the key difference in this approach is the optimization strategy behind it.

The two-step approach outlined above starts with utilities recognizing that improvement opportunities exist, understanding the value of detailed data in identifying these opportunities and enabling the data collected to be easily presented and reviewed. Taken as a whole, this process can produce prioritized, high-ROI recommendations.

To gain the full value of this approach, utilities should do the following:

  • Engage the quality review team, trainers, supervisors and CSRs in the review process;
  • Expand the focus of the quality review team from looking only at individual CSRs’ performance to looking at organizational processes as well;
  • Have trainers embed the new lessons learned in training classes;
  • Encourage supervisors to reinforce lessons learned in team meetings and one-on-one coaching; and
  • Require CSRs to identify issues that can be studied in future reviews and follow the lessons learned.

Leading organizations perform these reviews periodically, building on their understanding of their call centers’ current status and using that understanding to formulate actions for future improvement.

Once the first study is complete, utilities also have a benchmark to which results from future studies can be compared. The value of having these prior analyses should be obvious in each succeeding review, as hold times decline, average handle times decrease, calls are routed more frequently to the properly skilled person and IT investments made based on ROI analyses begin to yield benefits.

Beyond these savings, customer and employee satisfaction should increase. When a call is routed to the CSR with the requisite skills needed to handle it, both the customer and the CSR are happier. Customer and CSR frustration will also be reduced when there are clear procedures to escalate calls, and IT systems fail less frequently.

IMPLEMENTING A CALL CENTER REVIEW

Although there are some commonalities in improving utilities’ call center performance, there are always unique findings specific to a given call center that help define the nature and volume of opportunities, as well as help chart the path to improvement.

By realizing that benefit opportunities exist and applying the process steps described above, and by using appropriate tools to reduce costs and improve customer and CSR satisfaction, utilities have the opportunity to transform the effectiveness of their call centers.

Perhaps we should end with another quote from Yogi: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” In fact, for utilities that implement these steps, the future will likely be much better.

Making Change Work: Why Utilities Need Change Management

Many times organizations are reluctant to engage change management programs, plans and teams. More often, change management programs are launched too late in the project process, are only moderately funded or are absorbed within the team as part-time responsibilities – all of which we’ve seen happen time and again in the utility industry.

“Making Change Work,” an IBM study done in collaboration with the Center of Evaluation and Methods at Bonn University, analyzed the factors for successful implementation of change. The scope of this study, released in 2007, is now being expanded because the project management and change management professions, formerly aligned, are now at a turning point of differentiation. The reason is simple: too many projects fail to consider both components as critical to success – and therefore lack insight into the day-today impact of a change on members of the organization.

Despite this, many organizations have been reluctant to implement change management programs, plans and teams. And when they have put such programs in place, the programs tend to be launched too late in the project process, are inadequately funded or are perceived as part-time tasks that can be assigned to members of the project management team.

WHAT IS CHANGE MANAGEMENT?

Change management is a structured approach to business transformation that manages the transition from a current state to a desired future state. Far from being static or rigid, change management is an ever-evolving program that varies with the needs of the organization. Effective change management involves people and provides open communication.

Change management is as important as project management. However, whereas project management is a tactical activity, change management represents a strategic initiative. To understand the difference, consider the following

  • Change management is the process of driving corporate strategy by identifying, addressing and managing barriers to change across the organization or enterprise.
  • Project management is the process of implementing the tools needed to enable or mobilize the corporate strategy.

Change management is an ongoing process that works in close concert with project management. At any given time at least one phase of change management should be occurring. More likely, multiple phases will be taking place across various initiatives.

A change management program can be tailored to manage the needs of the organizational culture and relationships. The program must close the gaps among workforce, project team and sponsor leadership during all phases of all projects. It does this by:

  • Ensuring proper alignment of the organization with new technology and process requirements;
  • Preparing people for new processes and technology through training and communication;
  • Identifying and addressing human resource implications such as job definitions, union negotiations and performance measures;
  • Managing the reaction of both individuals and the entire organization to change; and
  • Providing the right level of support for ongoing implementation success.

The three fundamental activities of a change management program are leading, communicating and engaging. These three activities should span the project life cycle to maintain both awareness of the change and its momentum (Figure 1).

KEY ELEMENTS OF A CHANGE PROGRAM

There are three best practice elements that make the difference between successful projects and less successful projects: [1]

Organizational awareness for the challenges inherent in any change. This involves the following:

  • Getting a real understanding of – and leadership buy-in to – the stakeholders and culture;
  • Recognizing the interdependence of strategy and execution;
  • Ensuring an integrated strategy approach linking business strategy, operations, organization design and change and technology strategy; and
  • Educating leadership on change requirements and commitment.

Consistent use of formal methods for change management. This should include:

  • Covering the complete life cycle – from definition to deployment to post-implementation optimization;
  • Allowing for easy customization and flexibility through a modular design;
  • Incorporating change management and value realization components into each phase to increase the likelihood of success; and
  • Providing a published plan with ongoing accountability and sponsorship as well as continuous improvement.

A specified share of the project budget that is invested in change management. This should involve:

  • Investing in change linked to project success. Projects that invest more than 10 percent of the project budget have an average of 45 percent success (Figure 2). [2]
  • Assigning the right resources to support change management early on and maintaining the required support. This also limits the adverse impacts of change on an organization’s productivity (Figure 3). [3]

WHY DO UTILITIES NEED CHANGE MANAGEMENT?

Utilities today face a unique set of challenges. For starters, they’re simultaneously dealing with aging infrastructures and aging workforces. In addition, there are market pressures to improve performance, become more “green” and mitigate rising energy costs. To address these realities, many utilities are seeking mergers and acquisition (M&A) opportunities as well as implementing new technologies.

The cost cutting of the past decade combined with M&As has left utilities with gaps in workforce experience as well as budget challenges. Yet utilities are facing major business disruptions going into the next decade and beyond. To cope with these disruptions, companies are implementing new technologies such as the intelligent grid, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), meter data management (MDM), enterprise asset management (EAM) and work management systems (WMS’s). It’s not uncommon for utilities to be implementing multiple new systems simultaneously that affect the day-to-day activities of people throughout the organization, from frontline workers to senior managers.

A change management program can address a number of challenges specific to the utilities industry.

CULTURAL CLIMATE: ‘BUT WE’RE DIFFERENT’

A utility is a utility is a utility. But a deeper look into individual businesses reveals nuances in their relationships with both internal and external stakeholders that are unique to each company. A change management team must intimately understand these relationships. For example, externally how is the utility perceived by regulators, customers, the community and even analysts? As for internal relationships, how do various operating divisions relate and work together? Some operating divisions work well together on project teams and respect each other and their differences; others do not.

There may be cultural differences, but work is work. Only change management can address these relationships. Knowing the utility’s cultural climate and relationships will help shape each phase of the change management program, and allow change management professionals to customize a project or system implementation to fit a company’s culture.

REGULATORY LANDSCAPE

With M&As and increasing market pressures across the United States, the regulatory landscape confronting utilities is becoming more variable. We’ve seen several types of regulatory-related challenges.

Regulatory pressure. Whether regulators mandate or simply encourage new technology implementations can make a significant difference in how stakeholders in a project behave. In general, there’s more resistance to a new technology when it’s required versus voluntarily implemented. Change management can help work through participant behaviors and mitigate obstacles so that project work can continue as planned.

Multiple regulatory jurisdictions. Many utilities with recently expanded footprints following M&As now have to manage requests from and expectations of multiple regulatory commissions. Often these commissions have different mandates. Change management initiatives are needed to work through the complexity of expectations, manage multiple regulatory relationships and drive utilities toward a unified corporate strategy.

Regulatory evolution. Just as markets evolve, so do regulatory influences and mandates. Often regulators will issue orders that can be interpreted in many ways. They may even do this to get information in the form of reactions from their various constituents. Whatever the reason, the reality is that utilities are managing an ever-changing portfolio of regulations. Change management can better prepare utilities for this constant change.

OPERATIONS MATURITY

When new systems and technologies being implemented encompass multiple operating divisions, it can be difficult for stakeholders to agree on operating standards or processes. Project team members representing the various operating regions can resist compromise for fear of losing control. This often occurs when utilities are attempting to integrate systems across operating regions following an acquisition.

Change management helps ensure that various constituents – for example, the regional operating divisions – are prepared for eminent business transformation. In large organizations, this preparation period can take a year or more. But for organizations to realize the benefits of new systems and technology implementations, they must be ready to receive the benefits. Readiness and preparedness are largely the responsibilities of the change management team.

ORGANIZATIONAL COHESIVENESS

The notion of organizational cohesiveness is that across the organization all constituents are equally committed to the business transformation initiative and have the same understanding of the overarching corporate strategy while also performing their individual roles and responsibilities.

Senior executives must align their visions and common commitment to change. After all, they set the tone for change through their respective organizations. If they are not in sync with each other, their organizations become silos, and business processes are less likely to be fluid across organizational boundaries. Frontline managers and associates must, in turn, be engaged and enthusiastic about the transformations to come.

Organizational cohesiveness is especially critical during large systems implementations involving utility field operations. Leaders at multiple locations must be ready to communicate and support change – and this support must be visible to the workforce. Utilities must understand this requirement at the beginning of a project to make change manageable, realistic and personal enough to sustain momentum. All too often, we’ve heard team members comment, “We had a lot of leadership at the project kickoff, but we really haven’t seen leadership at any of our activities or work locations since then. The project team tells us what to do.”

Moreover, leadership – when removed from the project – usually will not admit that they’re in the dark about what’s going on. Yet their lack of involvement will not escape the attention of frontline employees. Once the supervisor is perceived as lacking information – and therefore power – it’s all over. Improving customer service and quality, cutting costs and adopting new technology-merging operations all require changing employees. [4]

For utilities, the concept of organizational cohesiveness is especially important because just as much technology “lives” outside IT as inside. Yet the engineers who use this non-IT-controlled technology – what Gartner calls “operations technology” – are usually disconnected from the IT world in terms of both practical planning and execution. However, these worlds must act as one for a company to be truly agile. [5]

Change management methods and tools ensure that organization cohesiveness exists through project implementation and beyond.

UNION ENGAGEMENT

Successful change occurs with a sustained partnership among union representatives throughout the project life cycle. Project leadership and union leadership must work together and partner to implement change. Union representation should be on the project team. Representatives can be involved in process reviews, testing and training, or asked to serve as change champions. In addition, communication is critical throughout all phases of a project. Frontline employees must see real evidence of how this change will benefit them. Change is personal: everyone wants to know how his or her job will be impacted.

There should also be union representation in training activities, since workers tend to be more receptive to peer-to-peer support. Utilities should, for example, engage union change champions to help co-workers during training and to be site “go to” representatives. Utilities should also provide advance training and recognize all who participate in it.

Union representatives should also participate in design and/or testing, since they will be able to pinpoint issues that will impact routine daily tasks. It could be something as simple as changing screen labels per their recommendation to increase user understanding.

More than one union workforce may be involved in a project. Location cultures that exist in large service territories or that have resulted from mergers may try to isolate themselves from the project team and resist change. Utilities should assemble a team from various work groups and then do the following to address the history and differences in the workforce:

  • Request ongoing union participation throughout the life of the project.
  • Include union roles as part of the project charter and define these roles with union leadership.
  • Provide a kickoff overview to union leadership.
  • Include union representation in work process development with balanced representation from various areas. Union employees know the job and can quickly identify the pros and cons of work tasks. A structured facilitation process and issue resolution process is required.
  • Assign a corporate human resource or labor relations role to review processes that impact the union workforce.
  • Develop communication campaigns that address union concerns, such as conducting face-to-face presentations at employing locations and educating union leaders prior to each change rollout.
  • Involve union representatives in training and user support.

Change management is necessary to sort through the relationships of multiple union workforces so that projects and systems can be implemented.

AN AGING WORKFORCE

A successful change management program will help mitigate the aging workforce challenges utilities will be facing for many years to come.

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A SUCCESSFUL CHANGE MANAGEMENT PROGRAM

The result of a successful change management program is a flexible organization that’s responsive to customer needs, regulatory mandates and market pressures, and readily embraces new technologies and systems. A change-ready organization anticipates, expects and is increasingly comfortable with change and exhibits the following characteristics:

  • The organization is aligned.
  • The leaders are committed.
  • Business processes are developed and defined across all operational units.
  • Associates at all levels have received communications and have continued access to resources.

Facing major business transformations and unique industry challenges, utilities cannot afford not to engage change management programs. This skill set is just as critical as any other role in your organization. Change is a cost. Change should be part of the project budget.

Change is an ongoing, long-term investment. Good change management designed specifically for your culture and challenges minimizes change’s adverse effect on daily productivity and helps you reach and sustain project goals.

ENDNOTES

  1. “Making Change Work” (an IBM study), Center of Evaluation and Methods, Bonn University, 2007; excerpts from “IBM Integrated Strategy and Change Methodology,” 2007.
  2. “Making Change Work,” Center of Evaluation and Methods, Bonn University, 2007.
  3. Ibid.
  4. T.J. Larkin and Sandar Larkin, “Communicating Change: Winning Employee Support for New Business Goals,” McGraw Hill, 1994, p. 31.
  5. K. Steenstrup, B. Williams, Z. Sumic, C. Moore; “Gartner’s Energy and Utilities Summit: Agility on Both Sides of the Divide”; Gartner Industry Research ID Number G00145388; Jan. 30, 2007; p. 2.
  6. P. R. Bruffy and J. Juliano, “Addressing the Aging Utility Workforce Challenge: ACT NOW,” Montgomery Research 2006 journal.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure: The Case for Transformation

Although the most basic operational benefits of an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) initiative can be achieved by simply implementing standard technological features and revamping existing processes, this approach fails to leverage the full potential of AMI to redefine the customer experience and transform the utility operating model. In addition to the obvious operational benefits – including a significant reduction in field personnel and a decrease in peak load on the system – AMI solutions have the potential to achieve broader strategic, environmental and regulatory benefits by redefining the utility-customer relationship. To capture these broader benefits, however, utilities must view AMI as a transformation initiative, not simply a technology implementation project. Utilities must couple their AMI implementations with a broader operational overhaul and take a structured approach to applying the operating capabilities required to take advantage of AMI’s vast opportunities. One key step in this structured approach to transformation is enterprise-wide business process design.

WHY “AS IS” PROCESSES WON’T WORK FOR AMI

Due to the antiquated and fragmented nature of utility processes and systems, adapting “as is” processes alone will not be sufficient to realize the full range of AMI benefits. Multiple decades of industry consolidation have resulted in utilities with diverse business processes reflecting multiple legacy company operating practices. Associated with these diverse business processes is a redundant set of largely homegrown applications resulting in operational inefficiencies that may impact customer service and reliability, and prevent utilities from adapting to new strategic initiatives (such as AMI) as they emerge.

For example, in the as-is environment, utilities are often slow to react to changes in customer preferences and require multiple functional areas to respond to a simple customer request. A request by a customer to enroll in a new program, for example, will involve at least three organizations within the utility: the call center initially handles the customer request; the field services group manages changing or reprogramming the customer’s meter to support the new program; and the billing group processes the request to ensure that the customer is correctly enrolled in the program and is billed accordingly. In most cases, a simple request like this can result in long delays to the customer due to disjointed processes with multiple hand-off points.

WHY USE AMI AS THE CATALYST FOR OPERATIONAL TRANSFORMATION?

The revolutionary nature of AMI technology and its potential for application to multiple areas of the utility makes an AMI implementation the perfect opportunity to adapt the utility operating structure. To use AMI as a platform for operational transformation, utilities must shift their thought paradigm from functionally based to enterprise-wide, process-centric environments. This approach will ensure that utilities take full advantage of AMI’s technological capabilities without being constrained by existing processes and organizational structures.

If the utility is to offer new programs and services as well as respond to shifting external demands, it must anticipate and respond quickly to changes in behaviors. Rapid information dissemination and quick response to changes in business, environmental and economic situations are essential for utilities that wish to encourage customers to think of energy in a new way and proactively manage their usage through participation in time-of-use and real-time demand response programs. This transition requires that system and organizational hand-offs be integrated to create a seamless and flexible work flow. Without this integration, utilities cannot proactively and quickly adapt processes to satisfy ever-increasing customer expectations. In essence, AMI fails if “smart meters” and “smart systems” are implemented without “smart processes” to support them.

DESIGNING SMART PROCESSES

Designing smart future state business processes to support transformational initiatives such as AMI involves more than just rearranging existing works flows. Instead, a utility must adopt a comprehensive approach to business process design – one that engages stakeholders throughout the organization and that enables them to design processes from the ground up. The utility must also design flexible processes that can adapt to changing customer, technology, business and regulatory expectations while avoiding the pitfalls of the current organization and process structure. As part of a utility’s business process design effort, it must also redefine jobs more broadly, increase training to support those jobs, enable decision making by front-line personnel and redirect rewards systems to focus on processes as well as outcomes. Utilities must also reshape organizational cultures to emphasize teamwork, personnel accountability and the customer’s importance; to redefine roles and responsibilities so that managers oversee processes instead of activities and develop people rather then supervise them; and to realign information system so that they help cross-functional processes work smoothly rather than simply support individual functional areas.

BUSINESS PROCESS DESIGN FRAMEWORK

IBM’s enterprise-wide business process design framework provides a structured approach to the development of the future state processes that support operational transformations and the complexities of AMI initiatives. This framework empowers utilities to apply business process design as the cornerstone of a broader effort to transition to a customer-centric organization capable of engaging external stakeholders. In addition, this framework also supports corporate decision making and continuous improvement by emphasizing real-time metrics and measurement of operational procedures. The framework is made up of the following five phases (Figure 1):

Phase 1 – As-is functional assessment. During this phase, utilities assess their current state processes and supporting organizations and systems. The goal of this phase is to identify gaps, overlaps and conflicts with existing processes and to identify opportunities to leverage the AMI technology. This assessment requires utility stakeholders to dissect existing process throughout the organization and identify instances where the utility is unable to fully meet customer, environmental and regulatory demands. The final step in this phase is to define a set of “future state” goals to guide process development. These goals must address all of the relevant opportunities to both improve existing processes and perform new functions and services.

Phase 2 – Future state process analysis. During this phase, utilities design end-to-end processes that meet the future state goals defined in Phase 1. To complete this effort, utilities must synthesize components from multiple functional areas and think outside the current organizational hierarchy. This phase requires engagement from participants throughout the utility organization, and participants should be encouraged to envision all relevant opportunities for using AMI to improve the utility’s relationship with customers, regulators and the environment. At the conclusion of this phase, all processes should be assessed in terms of their ability to alleviate the current state issues and to meet the future state goals defined in Phase 1.

Phase 3 – Impact identification. During this phase, utilities identify the organizational structure and corporate initiatives necessary to “operationalize” the future state processes. Key questions answered during this phase include how will utilities transition from current to future state? How will each functional area absorb the necessary changes? And what are the new organizations, roles and skills needed? This phase requires the utility to think outside of the current organizational structure to identify the optimal way to support the processes designed in Phase 2. During the impact identification phase of business, it’s crucial that process be positioned as the dominant organizational axis. Because process-organized utilities are not bound to a conventional hierarchy or fixed organizational structure, they can be customer-centric, make flexible use of their resources and respond rapidly to new business situations.

Phase 4 – Socialization. During this phase, utilities focus on obtaining ownership and buy-in from the impacted organizations and broader group of internal and external stakeholders. This phase often involves piloting the new processes and technology in a test environment and reaching out to a small set of customers to solicit feedback. This phase is also marked by the transition of the products from the first three phases of the business process design effort to the teams affected by the new processes – namely the impacted business areas as well as the organizational change management and information technology teams.

Phase 5 – Implementation and measurement. During the final phase of the business process design framework, the utility transitions from planning and design to implementation. The first step of this phase is to define the metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) that will be used to measure the success of the new processes – necessary if organizations and managers are to be held responsible for the new processes, and for guiding continuous refinement and improvement. After these metrics have been established, the new organizational structure is put in place and the new processes are introduced to this structure.

BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES OF BUSINESS PROCESS DESIGN

The business process design framework outlined above facilitates the permeation of the utility goals and objectives throughout the entire organization. This effort does not succeed, though, without significant participation from internal stakeholders and strong sponsorship from key executives.

The benefits of this approach include the following:

  • It facilitates ownership. Because the management team is engaged at the beginning of the AMI transformation, managers are encouraged to own future state processes from initial design through implementation.
  • It identifies key issues. A comprehensive business design effort allows for earlier visibility into key integration issues and provides ample time to resolve them prior to rolling out the technologies to the field.
  • It promotes additional capabilities. The business process framework enables the utility to develop innovative ways to apply the AMI technology and ensures that future state processes are aligned to business outcomes.
  • It puts the focus on customers. A thorough business process effort ensures that the necessary processes and functional groups are put in place to empower and inform the utility customer.

The challenges of this approach include the following:

  • It entails a complex transition. The utility must manage the complexities and ambiguities of shifting from functional-based operations to process-based management and decision making.
  • It can lead to high expectations. The utility must also manage stakeholder expectations and be clear that change will be slow and painful. Revolutionary change is made through evolutionary steps – meaning that utilities cannot expect to take very large steps at any point in the process.
  • There may be technological limitations. Throughout the business process design effort, utilities will identify new ways to improve customer satisfaction through the use of AMI technology. The standard technology, however, may not always support these visions; thus, utilities must be prepared to work with vendors to support the new processes.

Although execution of future state business process design undoubtedly requires a high degree of effort, a successful operational transformation is necessary to truly leverage the features of AMI technology. If utilities expect to achieve broad-reaching benefits, they must put in place the operational and organization structures to support the transformational initiatives. Utilities cannot afford to think of AMI as a standard technology implementation or to jump immediately to the definition of system and technology requirements. This approach will inevitably limit the impact of AMI solutions and leave utilities implementing cutting-edge technology with fragmented processes and inflexible, functionally based organizational structures.

Business Intelligence: The ‘Better Light Bulb’ for Improved Decision Making

Although some utilities have improved organizational agility by providing high-level executives with real-time visibility into operations, if they’re to be truly effective, these businesses must do more than simply implement CEO-level dashboards. They must provide this kind of visibility to every employee who needs it. To achieve this, utilities need to be able to collect data from many disparate sources and present it in a way that allows people company-wide to access the right information at the right time in the form of easy-to-use and actionable business intelligence (BI).

The following statement from the Gartner EXP CIO report “Creating Enterprise Leverage: The 2007 CIO Agenda,” led by Mark McDonald and Tina Nunno (February 2007).

Success in 2007 requires making the enterprise different to attract and retain customers. In response, many CIOs are looking for new sources of enterprise leverage, including technical excellence, agility, information and innovation.

This statement holds true. But converting data into useful information for employees in different levels and roles creates a new challenge. Technological advances that produce exponentially increasing volumes of data, coupled with historical data silos, have made it extremely difficult for utilities professionals to access, process and analyze data in a way that allows them to make effective decisions. What’s needed: BI technology tools that are not only available to the C-level executive or the accounting department, but to everyone – civil and electrical engineers, technicians, planners, customer service representatives, safety officers and others.

BI solutions also need to handle data in a way that mirrors the way people work. Such solutions should be capable of supporting the full spectrum of use – from individuals’ personal content to information created by team members for use by the team and formal IT-created structured and controlled content for use enterprise-wide.

The good news is that BI has become more accessible, easier to use and more affordable so that people throughout the enterprise – not just accountants or senior executives – can gain insight into the business and make better informed decisions.

RIGHT-TIME PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT

“The Gartner Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence Platforms, 2008,” by James Richardson, Kurt Schlegel, Bill Hostmann and Neil McMurchy (February 2008), has this to say about the value of BI:

CIOs are coming under increasing pressure to invest in technologies that drive business transformation and strategic change. BI can deliver on this promise if deployed successfully, because it could improve decision making and operational efficiency, which in turn drive the top line and the bottom line.

Greg Todd, Accenture Information Management Services global lead for resources at Accenture, advises that monthly, or even weekly, reports just aren’t enough for utilities to remain agile. Says Todd, “The utilities industry is dynamic. Everything from plant status and market demand to generation capacity and asset condition needs near real-time performance management to provide the insight for people enterprise-wide to make the right decisions in a timely fashion – not days or weeks after the event.”

By having access to near real-time performance monitoring across the enterprise, utilities executives, managers, engineers and front-line operations personnel can rapidly analyze information and make decisions to improve performance. This in turn allows them more agility to respond to today’s regulatory, competitive and economic imperatives.

For example, Edipower, one of Italy’s leading energy providers, has implemented an infrastructure that will grow as its business grows and support the BI technology it needs to guarantee power plant availability as market conditions and regulations dictate. According to Massimo Pernigotti, CIO of Edison, consolidating the family of companies’ technology platforms and centralizing its data network allowed the utility to fully integrate its financial and production data analyses. Says Pernigotti, “Using the new application, staff can prepare scorecards and business intelligence summaries that plant managers can then access from portable devices, ensuring near real-time performance management.”

To achieve this level of performance management, utilities professionals need easy access to both structured and unstructured data from multiple sources, as illustrated in Figure 1. This data can be “owned” by many different departments and span multiple locations. It can come from operational control systems, meter data systems, customer information systems, financial systems and human resources and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, to name a few sources. New and more widely available BI tools allow engineers and others to quickly view near real-time information and use it to create key performance indicators (KPIs) that can be used to monitor and manage the operational health of an organization.

KPIs commonly include things like effective forced outage factors (EFOFs), average customer downtime, average customer call resolution time, fuel cost per megawatt hour (MWh), heat rates, capacity utilization, profit margin, total sales and many other critical indicators. Traditionally, this data would be reported in dozens of documents that took days or weeks to compile while problems continued to progress. Using BI, however, these KPIs can be calculated in minutes.

With context-sensitive BI, safety professionals have the visibility to monitor safety incidents and environmental impacts. In addition, engineers can analyze an asset’s performance and energy consumption – and solve problems before they become critical.

One of the largest U.S.-based electric power companies recently completed a corporate acquisition and divestiture. As part of its reorganization, the company sought a way to reduce capital expenditures for producing power as well as an effective way to capture and transfer knowledge in light of an aging workforce. By adopting a new BI platform and monitoring a comprehensive set of custom KPIs in near real time, the company was able to give employees access to its generation performance metrics, which in turn led to improved generation demand-and-surplus forecasts. As a result, the company was able to better utilize its existing power plants and reduce capital expenditures for building new ones.

BI tools are also merging with collaboration tools to provide right-time information about business performance that employees at every organizational level can access and which can be shared across corporate boundaries and continents. This will truly change the way people work. Indeed, the right solution combines BI and collaboration, which not only improves business insight, but also enables staff to work together in real time to make sound decisions more quickly and easily and to proactively solve problems.

With these collaboration capabilities increasingly built into today’s BI solutions, firms can create virtual teams that interact using audio and video over large geographical distances. When coupled with real-time monitoring and alerting, this virtual collaboration enables employees – and companies – to make more informed decisions and subsequently become more agile.

Andre Blumberg, group information technology manager for Hong Kong’s CLP Group, believes that user friendliness and user empowerment are key success factors for BI adoption. Says Blumberg, “Enabling users to create reports and perform slice-and-dice analysis in a familiar Windows user interface is important to successfully leveraging BI capabilities.”

As more utilities implement KPI dashboards and scorecards as performance management tools, they open the door for next-generation technologies that feature dynamic mashups and equipment animations, and create a 24×7 collaborative environment to help managers, engineers and operations personnel detect and analyze problems faster and more effectively in a familiar and secure environment. The environment will be common across roles and cost much less than other solutions with similar capabilities. All this allows utilities operations personnel to “see the needle in the haystack” and make quicker and better decisions that drive operational efficiency and improve the bottom line. Collaboration enables personnel to engage in key issues in a timely fashion via this new desktop environment. In addition, utilities can gain preemptive knowledge of operational problems and act before the problems become critical.

BETTER DECISIONS IMPROVE BUSINESS INSIGHT

Everyone in the organization can benefit from understanding what drives a utility, the key metrics for success and how the company is performing against those metrics (see Figure 2). By definition, BI encompasses everyone, so logically everyone should be able to use it.

According to Rick Nicholson, vice president of research for Energy Insights, an IDC company, the nature of BI recently changed dramatically. For many years, BI was a reporting solution and capability used primarily by a small number of business analysts. “Today, BI solutions have become more accessible, easier to use and more affordable, and they’re being deployed to managers, supervisors, line-of-business staff and external stakeholders,” says Nicholson. “We expect the use of business intelligence in the utility industry to continue to increase due to factors such as new report and compliance requirements, changes in trading markets, new customer programs such as energy efficiency and demand response, and intelligent grid initiatives.”

Accenture’s Todd believes that traditional BI focuses on analyzing the past, whereas real-time BI today can provide an immediate chance to affect the future. Says Todd, “Smart users of BI today take the growing volume of corporate operational data and the constant fl ow of raw information and turn it into usable and business-relevant insight – in near real time – and even seek to manage future events using analytics.” (See Figure 2.)

Most importantly, today’s BI gives utility information workers a way of understanding what’s going on in the business that’s both practical and actionable. Dr. J. Patrick Kennedy, the founder and CEO of performance management vendor OSIsoft, says that the transaction-level detail provided from enterprise software often offers a good long-term history, but it does not answer many of the important operations questions. Further, this type of software typically represents a “pull” rather than a “push” technology.

Says Kennedy, “People think in terms of context, trends, interactions, risk and reward – to answer these questions effectively requires actionable information to help them make the right decisions. Integrating systems enables these decisions by providing users with a dynamic BI application within a familiar platform.”

WHAT GOOD BI SYSTEMS LOOK LIKE

Here are some critical characteristics to look for in an enterprise-class BI solution:

  • The BI solution should integrate with the existing IT infrastructure and not require major infrastructure changes or replacement of legacy software applications.
  • The technology should mirror day-today business processes already in place (rather than expect users to adapt to it).
  • The application should be easy to use without extensive IT support.
  • The BI solution should connect seamlessly to multiple data sources rather than require workers to toggle in and out of a broad range of proprietary applications.
  • An effective BI solution will provide the ability to forecast, plan, budget and create scorecards and consolidated financial reports in a single, integrated product.
  • The BI solution should support navigation directly from each KPI to the underlying data supporting that KPI.
  • Analysis and reporting capabilities should be flexible and allow for everything from collecting complex data from unique sources to heavy-duty analytics and enterprise-wide production reporting.
  • The BI solution should support security by role, location and more. If access to certain data needs to be restricted, access management should be automated.

The true measure of BI success is that users actually use it. For this to happen, BI must be easy to learn and use. It should provide the right information in the right amount of detail to the right people. And it must present this information in easily customized scorecards, dashboards and wikis, and be available to anyone. If utilities can achieve this, they’ll be able to make better decisions much more quickly.

SEEING THE LIGHT

BI is about empowering people to make decisions based on relevant and current information so that they can focus on the right problems and pay attention to the right customers. By using BI to monitor performance and analyze both financial and operational data, organizations can perform real-time collaboration and make truly transformational decisions. Given the dynamic nature of the utilities industry, BI is a critical tool for making organizations more flexible and agile – and for enabling them to easily anticipate and manage change.