I information technology (IT) initiatives ultimately reduce the number of jobs in a utility. I realize that making this statement is not politically correct, but I'm only stating what we all know to be true.
Meter readers went extinct in my neighborhood after the local utility installed automatic meter reading (AMR). The question is not whether IT will impact the work force, but how? And in this area, we do have control.
Consider “Mr. Courageous,” a contact at a large investor-owned utility who once managed a services group. His first decision was to forgo hiring a secretary. As he became more familiar with the duties of the department, he found ways to computerize many of the functions, encouraging employees to develop skills that could not be duplicated by machines. He even resorted to loaning out staff to other departments to work on special projects. Over the next three or four years, this individual managed to downsize his group to one-fourth the original size without anyone losing a job. Oh, yes, he also loaned out himself. He now works in another department, sans the management title. Of course, we seldom see managers exhibit the foresight to shrink an organization in times of relative calm. Instead we wait until a crisis erupts and, in panic mode, resort to slashing organizations.
We've already seen the impact of IT on office workers. Remember the venerable secretary? Today, many secretaries have evolved into computer savvy, multi-tasking office managers and executive assistants. Now we handle most of yesterday's secretarial and clerical work with voice mail, word processing and spread sheets. I work in a five-story building with one secretary, one executive assistant and one receptionist. Talk about lean. That is a far cry from the days when secretaries, receptionists and clerks were on every floor. Today, I type, sort spreadsheets, create presentations, fax and e-mail. I drag and click with the best. No one answers the phone anymore, so I trade voice mails. Ordering my own office supplies and making my own travel arrangements is now automatic. I once questioned whether this was a good use of my time, but now I just go with it.
Some things are getting easier. I no longer keep expense receipts. My company has a Web-enabled expense reporting system that sends an e-mail when charges are posted to my corporate credit card. I click a link and expenses are downloaded onto a screen that automatically lists the vendor. After entering the nature of my trip and with whom I dined, I hit “complete” and 15 days later, my company pays an aggregated AMEX bill.
IT technologies have leaped beyond individual offices and are working their way into every aspect of utility life. Expect many of the purchasing and project-tracking activities now handled manually to succumb to Web-enabled business tools.
I visited Scott Rogers, program manager at Allegheny Power, shortly after his company rolled out integrated applications, which included customer support, crew dispatch and outage management. Linemen found themselves ordering materials on mobile field computers. Engineers drew up small jobs at customer sites and even provided cost estimates on the spot.
Of course, not all IT innovations pan out. We've seen too many instances where failed or poorly executed IT initiatives resulted in more work, not less. Early work management systems often caused more harm than good, leaving individuals reduced to working around the system because packaged solutions did not address real needs.
Several years ago I was in Slovakia when a local distribution company was installing back office and work management systems. The initiative's approval depended on an “increase” in head count. It seems the politicians did not have the will to reduce utility staff as the country transformed from a socialist past to a free-market future.
Of course, we human beings are incredibly flexible. That's how we've managed to create outage management systems, mobile dispatch, distribution automation and the rest. Railing against IT won't get us anywhere. There will always be room for those who push earth and lift wood and steel, but the rest of us face an increasingly digital world.
Let me leave you with one prediction: In 10 years, we will look back and discover that IT innovations have impacted our jobs just as dramatically as office software impacted the jobs of today's secretaries.
People, not computers, drive the business. I grant that the computer is a useful and powerful tool but still just a tool. Successful utilities will reward innovative employees who work together to leverage IT and hardware tools to increase performance and hold down costs. Let's just be sure we remember to migrate the work force while we continue to migrate the software.