Taming Technology

You’ve been using technologies for years, so don’t be wary of new ones!

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You’ve been using technologies for years, so don’t be wary of new ones!

By Paul Hull

Why are people wary of technologies, especially new technologies? One often quoted reason is that they see technology as the twin of automation, and that means job losses at a time when unemployment is a very unpopular word. Today’s technologies for field personnel are not ways to eliminate them. Quite the opposite! The technologies make the operators and supervisors more efficient, more confident and more content in their work. Rather than eliminating anyone, good field technologies create stronger field forces. They also create new skills for the benefit of the employee and employer.

Most technologies can trace their heritage in the utility industries, particularly in communications. You’ve been using a telephone since you were a child. A cell phone? Most people use them. We’ve been using new technologies for decades! What about vehicles? Automatic transmissions? Global positioning systems (GPS)? Do you drive a pickup or an aerial lift truck? Do you have a remote control for your television? When was the last time you didn’t use one? We have been trying and accepting new technologies in our business and personal worlds for a long time, so there should be no hesitancy in our attitude to newly developed technologies. We would be cheating ourselves—and our companies and customers—if we didn’t research the value of new technologies for our vehicles, machines, tools, instruments and office equipment. Telephones and television were once new technologies—some of us remember when they weren’t readily available; there were people who couldn’t believe such things existed and many who said they couldn’t work until they started using them and realized their benefits. It is the usefulness of a technology that matters.

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Many of today’s innovations come from computer-based products—such as hardware and software. But, beware of thinking that anyone who can play computer or video games will be an expert user at work for his or her utility. Play is play, and work is work. The biggest difference might be that if you make a mistake playing, you just start again—with nothing lost but pride and temper. At work, a mistake can cause harm to people and damage to property. So, the difference is in attitude and reality. The user must learn what the technology in the new product will produce and how to take advantage of the features provided. Many people using computers—and I admit to being one of them—don’t know all their machine’s possibilities. We tend to learn enough to efficiently do our own job. That’s how our field employees should start. Have them learn enough to make an obvious improvement in their performance and communications, and encourage them to expand their knowledge from there to consistently get better.

Our learning about computers, laptops and iPads does not require us to know how to repair or make them, but we must learn how they can work for our personal advantage; that applies to field use and office use. One of the aspects noted for this age of communicating equipment is that, in some ways, it levels the slope between office and field, manager and field technician. Some are afraid of that, but it doesn’t mean the end of rank and authority; it does mean that everyone on the team can communicate quickly and accurately. The manager in the office can communicate instructions directly to the appropriate employee without having to go through several levels of employee. Years of telephone use and other oral communications have taught us how inaccurate the spoken word can be. How much work time has been wasted because the right instructions were given orally and passed on incorrectly? When communications are written and computed, they can be accurate and stay accurate, and they can be recorded for permanence.

Levels of Technological Involvement

The operator of a machine, in the air or underground, can use technology to show what must be done at a particular project and how well it is being done. The extension of that is the technology—usually software—that can let the project manager know what is going on with every project for the utility, at any time, from anywhere. You’ll come across the word, telematics. Telematics is the science that allows you to connect things that were always thought to be stand-alone components of your projects: your aerial lift, your pickup and your office. Telematics has been described as a smart service because it doesn’t wait for something to happen; it can tell you that a machine is about to break down or that an anticipated delivery of materials or equipment has been delayed. You could call telematics a kind of machine intelligence. I have been told that anything modern can have the required intelligence—including your car, your washer, your cell phone and your credit card—to collect, at incredible speed, billions of data points and then talk about them to another machine and person. People can’t do that. We would be too slow and too inaccurate. All activity collected by telematic devices—which often, inside a machine, look like little boxes you wouldn’t normally notice—can provide managers with amazing visibility into the company’s costs, assets and liabilities, exactly when they want or need it for decision making. Virtually any instrument or machine that uses electricity can tell you all about itself, its work and its condition.

How often have time and money been wasted when someone preferred to drive from the downtown office to the field site with a message or a question? Today, that’s an attitude problem of wasting time, not a technological challenge. Communications at virtually every level can be performed accurately and efficiently via a technology that involves computers, anywhere and any time.

Whatever technology is chosen to help field and office workers, there must be training to go with it. We can’t hand a new, perfectly efficient technology to someone and tell them to get on with it. The better the employee is trained in the use of a particular technology the better the results will be. When you investigate new technologies for your employees, at every level, make sure there is efficient, practical education that goes with the product. One criticism of some programs from operators and managers has been that the vendors and providers have done too little to help successfully implement the programs. That should not happen. Companies guilty of such poor customer service are failing and rightly so, but be aware of their existence. Your technology provider should offer a reliable product and good training, preferably as an integral part of the package.

Is There any Urgency?

One industry sector that has traditionally been mocked for its slow acceptance of new technologies has been the construction sector. That’s not true any longer. Many large, medium and small contractors have incorporated new technologies into their operations, making projects more efficient, less costly and more likely to be successful. Construction technologies have addressed areas such as the accuracy of a dozer or grader as well as project management. For utilities there are similar areas. One that comes to mind is the mapping for a utility. By its very nature a utility covers much ground, and there are available programs that can make a utility’s knowledge of that ground thoroughly accurate. Such programs can help with asset mapping, vegetation growth analysis, assistance in disasters or catastrophes, and what might loosely be called corridor management. If the reason for not progressing into more efficient methods is that the old way has always been good enough, there are millions of customers who might disagree.

Mapping is about location, and some technologies are useful because they can tell you if an asset is where it is supposed to be. GPS doesn’t just find the best local restaurant; it can tell if your equipment has been moved to the wrong site or stolen. It can help with the accuracy of underground work, which became more important when customers started complaining about the aboveground confusion of lines and wires. Many stolen vehicles have been tracked and recovered because of devices in the vehicle that tell you where they are. Similar devices can give the history of a vehicle’s use—or abuse.

Perhaps the best way to tame technology or control the enthusiasm of vendors who have just the thing for your utility is to research and write down what could be better at your utility. That will include equipment and people. People could sometimes be better if their tools were more accurate and their training more comprehensive, and the work in the field could sometimes be better if the communications and knowledge in the office—even on the top floor—were more accurate and readily transmitted.

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