2021 might seem like a long way off, but forward-thinking UK gas and electricity networks will already have an eye on the second round of RIIO price controls, due to be enforced in the next few years.
Ofgem’s executive director for systems and networks, Jonathan Brearley, has promised ‘tougher price controls with lower expected returns for network companies. This is part of our ongoing programme to ensure that consumers get reliable and secure power supplies at a fair price.’
Such a goal is, of course, worthwhile and important. The RIIO2 framework is designed to encourage companies that operate the gas and electricity networks in Great Britain to deliver the outputs that their customers value most, to offer fair pricing and ultimately ensure that high energy prices do not negatively impact quality of life. However, the framework places greater pressure than ever before on gas and electricity network companies to reduce their operational costs and drive efficiencies. If lower returns for network companies are part of the deal, then said companies would be wise to consider any ways in which their running costs can be lowered.
The question is – how?
One common starting point is to consider how technology can be used to drive business efficiencies, generally through some kind of digital transformation strategy. Replacing cumbersome manual processes with automated digital alternatives saves time and money, the theory goes and it often works very well. The Internet of Things, AI, mobility solutions, enterprise resource scheduling – all of these technologies have a place in helping network companies to do more with less.
However, digital transformation can only go so far. Every network company is still going to have to employ a large workforce, including numerous field service operatives working in a multitude of locations. From routine maintenance tasks and proactive tasks designed to extend the life of equipment, to responsive or emergency jobs when a flaw or failure is causing problems; such operatives are the lifeblood of any network company.
Technology can go a certain way in making these operatives more efficient at their tasks – think ‘right tool for the right job’ – but ultimately the maintenance, testing and repairing of network equipment is dependent on hiring the right people. Many network companies, in acknowledging this, fail to go further in considering how those people can be allocated in the most effective way possible.
Optimising your human resource
Technology can play a role in ensuring those people are allocated in the most efficient and appropriate way possible – and, in turn, this can extend the life of hardware across the network. This, of course, leads to the cost savings that are so crucial in the overall picture.
Field service management software is designed to enable organisations with large workforces continually working on complex and dynamic task lists to ensure they are being tackled in the most logical and efficient way – and that the individuals within those workforces are being assigned the most appropriate to do list. They aim to give managers a centralised view of exactly which tasks need completing and who is available to complete them at any given time – and automate task allocations according to factors like where an operative is located, the qualifications and certifications they hold, and how many tasks they have already completed within a specific window.
The result is that managers or task dispatchers are able to make far more intelligent – or automated – decisions as to where to allocate resource. Tasks requiring the most urgent response are dealt with more rapidly, while proactive work can be slotted in where it might have otherwise not been attempted, helping to extend the useful lifespan of equipment. Operatives spend less time travelling between tasks because their locations and shift lengths are clearly taken into account when allocating them.
For operatives who take on customer-facing roles, this intelligent allocation has further advantages. It enables a far more joined-up approach between central allocators, the customers who require appointments, and the operatives who carry them out. There are better opportunities, for example, for customers to select their own slot, or to receive live updates on the location of their allocated engineer. Given that the RII2O framework is ultimately about ensuring that customers receive the best possible service, this kind of transparency and open communication can only be a good thing.
And it doesn’t stop there. the field service management application can also generate rich data on the allocation of engineers and other operatives, and the completion of tasks. This intelligence can be used to identify issues like process bottlenecks or resource shortages, workers who may require retraining, and to develop more efficient working practices.
In this way, field service management can become part of a broader exercise in business intelligence and transformation, giving previously unexplored visibility into elements like typical time taken to complete different tasks.
It all adds up to a more intelligent, analytical and ultimately optimised workforce – precisely what is required in a world in which network companies need to accept lower returns as part of the RII2O regulatory framework. In turn, they will be able to continue providing homes and businesses with a safe, reliable energy network and the best possible levels of service.
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