The mobile data revolution has overtaken vehicles everywhere, from family cars to large corporate fleets. Many large fleets use advanced technology to track vehicles for greater efficiency and effective deployment. And average citizens take advantage of GPS devices.

Naturally, major electric delivery utilities like ComEd and PECO wanted to take this revolution several steps further by leveraging the latest mobile devices and workforce management systems to streamline productivity. As a result, the utilities are driving greater work efficiency in the field and improving customer service by providing quicker customer updates on outage status, estimated restoration times and other service requests.

The solution driving all these benefits is called mobile dispatch. Both ComEd and PECO are units of Chicago, Illinois-based Exelon, one of the nation's largest electric utilities with 5.4 million customers. Mobile dispatch was employed to support ComEd's and PECO's electric and gas operations in northern Illinois and southeastern Pennsylvania, respectively. This solution extends beyond just field construction crews responding to outage tickets; it also includes emergency responders, meter servicers, and transmission and substation workers. Although the scope was complex and the geography diverse, ComEd and PECO successfully completed delivery of the mobile dispatch solution in December 2009.

System Overview

A core element of the mobile dispatch solution is an enterprise mobile workforce management system. The approach leveraged commercially available mobile information technology (IT) to create a robust solution that is scalable and transportable. The utilities' mobile dispatch provides the following:

  • Use of GPS for street-level routing and vehicle tracking

  • Real-time crew management, electronic dispatch of scheduled and emergency work, and electronic status and close of work

  • More Than a Simple Upgrade

    Integrated electronic mapping for optimum routing, driving directions, asset identification and red-lining

  • Integration of the mobile workforce management system with the outage management system, customer information and management system and geographic information system to provide real-time access and updates of all field work to back-office systems.

To achieve the benefits of the new mobile dispatch system, more than 2300 vehicles were equipped with mobile dispatch terminals — adding approximately 500 dispatcher terminals — and more than 4300 employees across both utilities were trained in system use. On the technical front, the IT group delivered eight internal source system interfaces, hardware and software across two geographically dispersed operating utilities supporting 12 departments.

To embark on this technology journey, leadership from the ComEd and PECO line organizations partnered with IT to design the solution and implementation approach. Historically, the line organizations looked to IT to identify and implement a technology solution intended to meet an identified business need. The IT organization would compare business requirements to industry-proven solutions and then deliver the end product back to the line organizations. This approach created risks that the finished product would not hit the mark because of the limited business knowledge and firsthand business experience of the IT project teams.

Adaptability and Engagement

The mobile dispatch initiative represented more than a simple hardware or software upgrade. It required a complete rethinking of how technology could streamline the entire work chain and back-office interactions. This meant a more-intensive understanding of every user's duties, focusing on complex operational business goals and guaranteeing the creation of tangible results that would noticeably benefit both workers and the customer.

For the mobile dispatch project, leadership recognized the need to follow a different path than what had been taken on prior projects. This project was to include full-time line organization employees in all aspects of the project, including application development and deployment activities. By engaging end users to create high-performance integrated teams responsible for design, build and testing phases, ComEd and PECO would be better positioned to deliver a system that met business needs. Business team members knew firsthand how field members would use the technology and could provide immediate feedback to the project team as the solution was being built.

Recognizing this project would be a multi-year effort, ComEd and PECO created a governance model that provided ongoing executive support and guidance throughout the life of the project. This governance model also provided a venue for sharing key lessons learned throughout the three-year project. The lessons were applied not only to remaining activities within the project but also will be applied to future initiatives at both utilities. Following are some of the key lessons learned.

Flexibility and First Impressions

The long project timeline made adapting to the changing conditions essential. The business environment does not stand still during the course of a project, so project plans required flexibility both in terms of changing needs and changing project members and sponsors. The plan required building in mechanisms for proper adaptability and knowledge transfer to maintain project continuity.

It was critical to engage everyone down to the front line. This investment paid huge dividends not only in the solution design, but, perhaps more importantly, also during deployment. By engaging employees, the process of establishing ownership began. Employees recognized they have a stake and voice at the table, which encouraged them to develop a product that would aid them in their day-to-day work. This ownership and pride in a product they helped build established them as champions of the solution during deployment and post-implementation support.

Crawl, Walk, Run

ComEd expanded employee engagement further by using a training approach called “train the trainer.” Line employees served as training instructors and post-training ambassadors to provide support to field employees after they left the classroom. Having coworkers as instructors provided a level of credibility and firsthand knowledge traditional instructors could not provide. The employee instructors provided real-life examples of field situations using the technology. Students were receptive to this learning and less apprehensive to reach out with questions or seek assistance.

There is no off-the-shelf solution when trying to meet the needs of multiple work groups. Plan on involving multiple vendors and building multiple interfaces to deliver a complete solution that fits the full set of business requirements. Be willing to make tradeoffs when implementing an enterprise-wide solution. One size does not fit all. Recognize that tough decisions will need to be made when prioritizing the needs of one work group against the needs of another.

There is only one chance to make a good first impression on the workforce. Test thoroughly and be honest in the testing phase exit criteria. It is not realistic to insist all tests and defects are 100% successfully resolved before beginning the implementation phase. But be clear and insistent on both the volume and types of open defects acceptable to allow moving forward. End users will remember their first experience with new technology. Some nuisance defects may have a lasting impression. It may be harder to gain employee receptiveness after a negative experience than it would be to delay deployment until the critical impact items are resolved. If the desire is for employees to use the technology, make sure it works.

Usability and Leveraging

The degree of change must be considered when developing training and performance reporting. Classroom training curriculum was developed for each department, with material focused on department-specific types of work. Aside from the unique work types, the utilities' original training plan was for all departments to follow a similar training approach that included several days of classroom training. The training plan was quickly modified after the first training session when it was evident the computer literacy level of some field employees had been overestimated. Although many were familiar with PCs, some had no prior experience with a computer. Introductory web-based training was quickly developed and proficiency evaluations instituted to help ensure students met a minimum computer literacy threshold prior to beginning classroom training.

Performance reporting provided a similar lesson. As part of the project, the utilities worked together to recreate and implement performance reports to mirror what existed prior to mobile dispatch. Imagine the surprise and confusion when the reports continued to show no data weeks after deployment began. The utilities thought the issue surely must be a report design flaw. It was quickly determined the reports were not receiving the data because employees were continuing to process work using former manual processes rather than the new technology. To address this, ComEd and PECO developed a series of reports to track employee transition from manual to system processing:

  • Implementation is the Beginning

    The first report measured whether employees were even logging into the system (crawl).

  • The second report tracked the volume of work actually being processed through the system (walk).

  • The final reports measured the efficiency and productivity of the work groups (run).

It is important to create a platform that enables and promotes usability. ComEd and PECO considered future growth and sizing into their software and hardware requirements but found ways of leveraging the system that were not part of the original plan. Many of these creative ideas came from field employees using the system.

With a shift in how user rights were defined, ComEd and PECO granted field employees additional system rights to remotely access corporate intranet sites and other programs. Field employees also offered additional ideas on leveraging the mobile units to improve efficiency in other areas of work.

Companies mentioned:

The project does not end with implementation. Plan for extended support from the business and IT teams for a reasonable time after the formal deployment is complete. As the line business becomes familiar and proficient with the tools, changes will be requested for reporting, configuration and other enhancements. To get employees to use the new technology, be willing and able to support these requests. Executive sponsorship post-project is also crucial to reinforce expectations and benefits of the technology if it is used.

With the implementation of mobile dispatch, ComEd and PECO have realized improvements and savings in their operations. Across both utilities, savings of US$21.1 million have been realized to date, with projected savings exceeding $27.6 million through 2012. These savings and improvements are primarily driven by efficiencies in dispatching and field operations associated with real-time updates and improved information to and from the field. Customers and call center personnel also are seeing the benefit of more-timely and more-accurate information regarding service requests and outage status. Going forward, ComEd and PECO expect to further increase the use and benefits of mobile dispatch as employees gain experience with the tool and identify new ways to leverage the technology.


Charleen Miller (charleen.miller@comed.com) is a distribution operations manager for ComEd (Chicago) and the ComEd project manager for the SCADA refresh project supporting transmission and distribution SCADA. During her 30 years with ComEd and Exelon, her responsibilities have included customer operations, emergency response, field and meter services, new construction and quality services. Recently, Miller was ComEd's project manager responsible for implementation of the mobile dispatch workforce management system. She holds a BA degree in business administration from DePaul University in Chicago.

Mark Browning (Mark.Browning@exeloncorp.com) is the director of IT for Exelon Business Services Co. (Chicago). He and his team provide support for more than 60 utility software applications, including ComEd's SCADA, outage management system, GIS and mobile dispatch applications. In his 20 years with Exelon, Browning's responsibilities have included delivery of large IT projects, enterprise architect and real-time system technical specialist. Browning serves on the DistribuTECH Advisory Committee and received a BS degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Illinois.

ComEd www.comed.com

Exelon Corp. www.exeloncorp.com

PECO www.peco.com