By Bob Ashenbrenner, President of Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC.
Lately we've been hearing about the value that the “bring your own device” (BYOD) movement brings to Utilities focused on achieving greater efficiency and cost savings in their service models. Most of the media coverage discusses the advantages of BYOD as they relate to improved customer engagement. Many articles even encourage utilities to work with their software suppliers to implement expansive BYOD capabilities as quickly as possible.
This is no surprise given how important data is to creating sustainable operating environments amidst rising consumer demand and aging transmission and distribution infrastructure. What is surprising, though, is the reason why these articles don't address the usually controversial debate about whether an organization should supply the appropriate devices to end-users, or let (even require) their employees to use their own personal devices. Quite simply, utility software vendors are using the term “BYOD” very differently than how it is used in other industries. They aren’t talking about employees bringing their own [smartphone, tablet, laptop] to work. They’re talking about the implications of allowing consumers to use or bring their own devices onto residential and commercial utility networks to facilitate smarter, more connected service models. Let me explain…
White collar industries were the first to embrace BYOD (in the traditional interpretation of what “Bring Your Own Device” means). Many of these information workers wanted to have a more modern notebook or tablet. Others wanted to use a Mac, which were rarely an IT-issued device. So many companies looked at these requests, considered the risk vs. reward and decided to go with the flow. They believed that, with some additional security steps in place, these personal devices could create a win-win scenario that would make employees happy and more productive and save their company significant IT costs. Let’s call this model eBYOD – employee Bring Your Own Device.
But, utilities and their IT organizations have another set of device users to consider: their customers. These customers have become active partners in demand response programs that give them the ability to manage their personal energy use and take advantage of different service rates as they vary over 24 hours based on “peak” and “off-peak” periods, or during critical times when demand is close to maximum capacity. However, it’s well known that for demand response to work, these customers need the ability to monitor their energy use, set thermostats, read outside temperatures, and connect to their Utility company for on-line service and to request support if needed. That means customers need devices that can run Utility-provided software designed to tie these systems together. And so the conversation has shifted to debate whether or not Utilities should supply or regulate the kind of “smart” device that customers need to run this software in their homes or businesses, even though the customer likely has compatible devices in their service environment already. (Remote or centrally-controlled electronic are very common in industrial and commercial settings, for example.) So, let’s call this version cBYOD – customer Bring Your Own Device.
Now, when comparing eBYOD against cBYOD, it’s clear that they have very different applicability and implications for Utilities: mobile workforce satisfaction and IT costs/savings vs. consumer satisfaction and costs/savings of power gen, T&D, etc.
In my opinion, cBYOD is a win-win. Customers can use their preferred mobile or desktop device to control whichever off-the-shelf smart devices fit their lifestyle or building operations policy and still become involved with demand management programs that save them money. There’s no need to buy or rent new devices for only one use (i.e. a tablet that can only control the lights), as these computers or tablets have other functions within the customers’ companies and homes. And the Utility’s IT department doesn’t have to supply this population with PCs or hire field service technicians to assist with installation and maintenance of rental equipment. The software becomes utilities’ only investment, and customer satisfaction levels increase.
In contrast, the only time that eBYOD programs have ever made any sense at all is when the company-issued devices were generic PCs that could be given to workers requiring basic computing functions only, such as Excel and Outlook with some access to databases. In other words, mobile computers which may require some memory or processing power, but weren’t going to be used to complete any unique or challenging workflows (i.e. accounting). If you ask me, eBYOD models fail Utilities’ mobile workforces because there are too many specialized applications, communications requirements, and specific I/O ports necessary in their line of work.
Just consider the industrial sector companies (including a few utilities) that have tried using "regular" off-the-shelf mobile computing devices, protected by third party “rugged” cases, while hoping to save some money. These attempts generally led to worst-of-all-worlds situations. Cases added so much bulk to the tablet or smartphone, which resulted in a “portable” device three times thicker than the original – ultimately limiting the device’s mobility among the walking and working force. And the cases never did provide enough device protection. Between broken devices and frequent replacement of cases to keep pace with the ever-changing size and form of the consumer tablets – which were also churning through workers’ hands quickly – these field service organizations found themselves spending more trying to manage security and software for the various devices than they could have every saved in a best-case scenario. Not to mention the productivity challenges that workers faced due to the short battery life (and irreplaceable batteries) of their personally chosen devices, the outside glare hindering fast data readability, the missing I/O needed to connect to network testing equipment, and other overlooked capabilities that many take for granted in purpose-built mobile computers.
But those are just a few reasons why any type of traditional BYOD mode lwill spell BYO (Disaster) for Utilities. As I’ve said before, “Re-securing customer confidence in utilities’ service quality is not as simple as dispatching highly skilled and passionate workers to substations during peak periods or into the field for residential and commercial outage calls either. Those traits don’t necessarily facilitate more proactivity or a faster reaction. Data does. That’s why you have to dispatch well-informed workers. You have to give them all the data they need to confidently make real-time decisions about how to resolve an issue, close a deal, or install a piece of equipment that will influence customer satisfaction. And they have to be able to do it faster than before, which is only feasible with a well-connected, reliable, and purpose-built computer within arm’s reach at all times.”
In other words: Truly mobile computers such as rugged tablet PCs that give utility technicians every tool they need to do their job at the very moment they need it in a single device – and a single platform that’s easy for IT to manage from a security and software perspective. I doubt you’ll be able to find this “secret sauce” in any device that your employees try to use in a BYOD model.
So, as the Utility industry converges on San Diego next week for DistribuTECH, let’s make a concerted effort to distinguish between cBYOD and eBYOD when debating the pros and cons of “BYOD.” In fact, I propose we move away from calling cBYOD a form of BYOD at all. Otherwise, we’ll all be doing a disservice to Utility customers by advocating for BYOD as a “win-win” in broad terms. cBYOD may be smart customer engagement strategy, but eBYOD is not a smart mobile workforce strategy for Utilities – especially those worried about keeping operating costs low, increasing hardware ROI and using mobility solutions as a revenue-generating stream at the point-of-service. Dedicated, purpose-built devices such as rugged tablets are the best way to support a field or industrial workforce at a low Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and high ROI, and the best way to provide quality customer support for what I propose we call “Connect Your Own Device” (CYOD) initiatives, such as demand response.