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Let’s face it -- utilities are behind when it comes to monitoring and analyzing data. Instead of using real-time information to guide action plans, asset data still sits in silos, or worse -- in file cabinets.
Getting the right data in one central location is only half the battle. The field crew uses this data every day to guide their work, so it’s crucial that information be accessible and easy to update by people on the work sites.
Brent Cody, holds a PhD, and is a professional engineer, app developer and trusted consultant who is passionate about implementing tools with structures and plans as safeguards for the people using them to achieve their goals. So when Brent met Utility Cloud’s Director of Business Development Kurt West at the Annual New England AWWA Regional conference, they knew their connection was worth pursuing. Let’s see his perspectives on new technology in asset management for utilities.
Unfortunately, operators and field crews all over the nation still struggle with limited access to information and data in the field, and technology can help ease those challenges with real-time access to information in a centralized location.
“If people are monitoring or ensuring that their natural resources are adequate, there’s a huge benefit in having all of their infrastructure documentation, quality assurance plans and other important information in one location that is accessible anywhere,” said Brent.
Beyond real-time access to information on the field, utility asset management does something even more important -- organization. Everyday operations are increasingly complex, with multiple teams, contractors, asset types, locations, and equipment ages. That’s why developing a consistent set of operations tools with your utility asset management will get everyone on the same page, provide financial benefit, and simplify your operations.
In the world of asset management, there’s been a lot of buzz about upcoming energy and utility industry trends. From an increase in personalized interactions with customers to evolving pricing models, 2020 will be a big year.
More importantly, there’s a growing sentiment for digitalization to rewire current operations and real-time access into data from the field. Companies will begin integrating data analytics, digital marketing, IoT, and mobile payments to connect with a newer generation of digital-savvy consumers. Technology grows at an exponential rate, so it’s important to get ahead while you still can.
It’s not easy to convince your managers to adopt new technology, then find the budget, go through the purchasing process and then try to implement a new software solution into a company.
Designing a platform that people will really use isn’t as easy as it sounds. According to Brent, “there’s a risk in over-designing tools -- if you develop a solution without getting buy-in from the department staff, it just won’t get used. That’s why you need a versatile, easy solution that can create more complex solutions. You really need the staff of the department you’re working for to provide input on the front end to help create this solution.”
When designing a new tool, make sure you’re not overcomplicating the solution or forcing it upon a program -- otherwise, it just won’t work. That’s why getting a plan on the front-end with all of the potential users is so important -- from the managers to the workers on the ground who are actually facing the problems.
“The tangible benefits of utility asset management might be financial, but the implicit operational benefits are what’s going to set you apart for the next 10-20 years as a utilities department,” said Brent.
If your manager is more concerned with the bottom line this quarter than the intangible benefits of utility asset management, here are some different benefits to consider yourself and share:
Implementing technology simplifies the data and communication problems that have plagued the utility management industry for years. Applying technology in a smart yet simple way allows operators, samplers or technicians to use it as low hanging fruit to solve the most complex and expensive operational challenges.
With a common workflow platform, the basics of work clarity, scheduling, dispatching, and accountability all become a reality. The point of bringing technology into workflows isn’t to make things more complicated, it’s to make them easier - but also faster, more accurate and even obsolete (if possible).
If you develop a solution without centralized accountability, nobody will know when things need to get done (or if they were getting done at all).
“I developed a solution without a centralized task accountability tool, and nobody knew when things needed to get done, or even if they were getting done at all. And once I built accountability into the workflow, it revolutionized how effective they were,” Brent said.
When you have a user-friendly, tailored tool in the field, you can capture the institutional knowledge of your experienced workforce, make it accessible for everyone, and also provide transparency and access into the current status of work.
“That’s why Utility Cloud is great for so many different users, needs and environments -- it’s versatile, easy to design and creates simple solutions that can support more complex applications. Just listen to what your users need, and create it,” explained Brent.
Before you build out your solution, you need to start with preemptive long-term planning.
“As boring as it sounds, putting together a good operational management plan and deciding how you’re going to achieve departmental goals on the front end is crucial. If you don't have a roadmap, then it probably doesn’t make sense to buy a drone, a sensor or a web app,” said Brent.
You have to develop a sturdy 5- or 10-year plan to achieve your goal, and then identify what resources will get you there. Once you’ve clearly identified what your department’s tasks and objectives are, then you can start to identify what tools will help you achieve them and surround yourself with the most productive setup.
“If your water management department is monitoring 100 different groundwater wells and 200 different surface water flow rates, that’s a lot to keep track of. They’ve got a lot of points to monitor,” Brent explained. “Then, note their productivity before implementing a solution, and identify a good goal for the next year, 5 years and then 10 years. If your 10-year plan is to reach 100% reporting, just keep working till you get there.
“Remember, It all has to get tied into the department’s economies. If you’ve got a certain budget every year, it might make sense to buy a drone at this time, but it might not, depending on funding. However, if you drastically reduce your labor and you don’t have to pay a technician, then it makes all the sense in the world.”
In today’s workforce, you have to stay ahead and offer cutting-edge technology to attract and retain top talent, but also the experience of your most experienced professionals. “If you don’t have a way to easily store information on the work that has been done, most of that gets lost through the transition of staff,” Brent said.
Having an easy to use, tailored tool in the field captures the institutional knowledge, it’s accessible by everyone, and most importantly, it’s available for use in real time.
Now that the older generation is retiring and newer workers are beginning their careers, most of their experience, information and data on completed work gets lost through the transition of staff. The younger staff doesn’t see technology like utility asset management as mundane -- they see it as technical in nature, more elevated or even advantageous for their careers.
“If a recent graduate is looking at two different departments for work, and company A has an efficient system of technology and structured tools in place, they’re going to value company A more than company B. Even though the hands-on work on the ground is the same, the documentation and tools involved have a much higher level of technology that they can put on their resume,” said Brent.
Finding the right solution isn’t just about the functionality and user input -- it’s also about being able to support the solution financially. And while some departments understand the opportunity cost and value prop for this technology, other organizations don’t understand the long-term payoff from optimizing labor, salaries and technology.
“There are lots of grants for departmental capacity building because the individual governing agency just doesn’t see the value in preemptive planning or using this technology. With a funding proposal, you can tie in several different components or tools you need in that funding proposal, and then you can develop the plan later,” explained Brent.
If your department doesn’t understand the value attributed to technology investments, remind them about the long-term winnings that will come from not wasting labor or salaries. With a technology budget and proper execution, you can optimize budget and tools for more ROI than expected.
Just as Brent says, “the best way to implement a new tool is through transparency and feedback. Explain what your solution will look like, and ask the users ‘What do you think? How can we improve? What problems do we need solved?’”
Think about both the present and future of your company when developing your next long-term plan. How will you play a role in shaping the future? What are you going to change? These are all pivotal to consider for a successful company.
Brent is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE), an app developer and consultant who is passionate about implementing tools and technology in order to simplify regulatory compliance and monitoring.
With a B.S. degree in Structural Engineering, a Masters in Water Resources Planning and Management, and a Doctorate in Groundwater Hydrology under his belt, Brent is very knowledgeable about the water utility industry. His areas of expertise include water quality monitoring, data analysis and visualization, organizational and process optimization, and web-app development.
Brent is currently the founder of Momentum Civil and Environmental Engineering where he uses the best management practices and technology to create plans and develop web and mobile apps to support an organization’s long-term goals.