Since Apple launched the iPhone, the explosive growth in “smart” mobile devices and consumer applications over the past 9 years has been phenomenal. With that growth has come huge opportunities for companies to make dramatic changes to both the way they work and how they engage with staff, business partners, and customers.
The question I’d like to look at is where can water companies use mobile applications, and what sort benefits may be achieved?
Business to Enterprise
Within the business itself, there are many possible use cases for mobile, some will have easily identified benefits that can be easily measured and have hard financial benefits, others provide softer benefits.
The most obvious ones here are:
- There are many opportunities for the support for field operations. Recently I spoke with one utility company who confirmed the field technicians have around 25KG of various paperwork in each vehicle to record various information on. Below are some of the tasks captured on the paperwork:
- The most obvious is Field Service and there are 3 aspects to this:
- Notification Manager: captures and manages notifications assigned to field supervisors, and converts to work orders – allowing greater field efficiencies. Typically used in Break Fix instead of scheduled maintenance
- Plan and Tracking for scheduling work, allocating resources, and enabl real-time tracking of field execution. The app identifies the bottlenecks and failures in the field and enables contextual collaboration between technicians, back office, and customers
- Order Execution: Increases efficiency and effectiveness of the field technicians to improve first-time fix rates, maintain SLA’s and increase customer satisfaction. As well as cost savings from reduced time to perform the task and remove paper work it can improve inaccuracy into Utility Maps
- Health and Safety is paramount within the utility industries and the ability to provide field workers with the relevant H&S documentation and the ability to track that someone has read the document are extremely important.
- Inventory Checks – the ability to capture accurate inventory information both in van stocks and satellite depots enables the business to reduce delays in work order by ensuring the correct stock is available to the field technician and reduce the capital tied up in inventory
- Vehicle Checks. With large fleets of vehicles, being able to improve accuracy of data held on vehicles leads to minimising downtime for the assets. If maintenance staff are fully aware of all faults before starting the work, they can properly plan how long the vehicle is unavailable. This leads to more accurate scheduling for vehicles.
- The most obvious is Field Service and there are 3 aspects to this:
There are many other opportunities for taking the paper data capture and digitising the process, but one side benefit is the reduction in your green footprint in no longer transporting 25kg of paperwork 1000’s or miles per year in each and every vehicle. Given the majority of the fleet vehicles are vans, the CO2 emissions for hauling this paperwork around is second only to airlines in terms of the green energy cost (Transport Analysis UK Conclusion Table B)
- For HR there are many use cases here that can be improved through the use of mobile applications, providing opportunities to improve the quality of data captured, for example in timesheet entry, through to improvements in intra-company communications. Some examples of these are:
- Leave Management
- Profile management
- Manager approvals for Leave; Time Entry etc.
- Expenses entry; Submission; Mileage capture’ receipt Capture etc.
- Intranet information; Push messaging for news
- New Starter guides: Having information readily available for new starters can reduce the induction time and make them feel part of the community more quickly
By streamlining process, improving data quality and increasing inclusivity leading to better staff acquisition and retention.
- Meeting Room Finder: Many offices can be large complex sites, with meeting rooms scattered around. Being able to find an available room, at short notice has saved some companies hundreds of thousands of pounds in saved man hours.
- Hot Desking Support: With more companies moving to hot desk environments to reduce office expenses support to find both desks, and people who are now no longer in one location can provide significant savings, however measuring this can be challenging.
- Social – This can cover anything from the HR team providing information about upcoming events, to allowing someone to arrange a lunch meeting, to brainstorming informal sessions i.e. someone wants to go to lunch and wishes to discuss IoT. they can send out an invite, and anyone on the site who has registered to receive alerts can be notified. This is a great way to generate cross pollination of ideas between different business streams that may not normally talk to each other
- Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity: Being able to communicate with and manage staff when normal systems have failed can provide a safety net to normal business processes.
Business to Business
The requirements here can be very similar to internal business needs. From contractor technicians and managers who need information to support Field Service operations and entering timesheet information for billing, to contract office staff from the incumbent SI needing to find a desk to work at. There is no real difference and as businesses undertake digital transformations forced on them with the deregulation of the Water industry in the UK this change is set to continue.
Business to Customer
With deregulation looming for the UK water industry it is critical for water companies to fully engage with their customers as noted in my blog here.
With over 75% of adults in the UK owning a smartphone a mobile offering is now seen by many consumers as a necessity and the types of activities are going to be very similar to those we are familiar with from our energy suppliers:
- Pay bills and view account details
- Change direct debit payments
- Book an engineer
- View usage over time
Plus, some that are unique to the water industry
- Water Quality
- Leak reporting – while this is applicable for gas, water is visible so is more likely to be reported.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but is intended to show you that the opportunities for applications to enhance business processes is diverse and across all areas of the business. With greater customer satisfaction comes customer retention, reduced bad debt and higher rewards from Ofwat from the SIM.
What capabilities should I look for when building apps?
There are two ways you can approach building the applications. The first in on a tactical basis i.e. build an app as it is needed typically with no view to how it will be supported, and this is traditionally how many companies have approached this problem. The other approach is to look at a platform solution. When would you use a platform? Well there are many opinions (and I have my own) but if you look here you can see Gartner propose the rule of Rule of Three which refers to a concept, whereby companies are encouraged to consider the platform approach to mobility when they need their mobile solutions to:
- Build three or more mobile applications
- Support three or more mobile operating systems
- Integrate with three or more back-end data sources
According to Gartner, using a common mobility platform like a platform brings considerable savings and strategic advantages in this situation.
If you considered any of the applications above, in isolation, you may not need the Rule of Three with the possible exception of the customer facing applications, where you have no control over the device type. However, as soon as you consider building several of the above then a platform makes perfect sense.
For all of the above example applications, and other you may be planning to build, there are many different requirements you need to consider, and each application will have its own requirements. This then leads you to consider which platform you should use. Now clearly I’m going to say Kony here as I work for them, but taking that aside for a minute let’s consider instead what functions may be important instead.
- What is the total cost of ownership? Investigate how much it will cost to not only build but maintain the applications when new OS releases appear.
- Security – given the recent news over the vulnerabilities of connected devices (phones , cars etc. all make the news) this has to be an absolute mandatory requirement. If we think about upcoming changes, with IoT added into this the chaos someone could cause with an insecure mobile application for a Field Engineer to shut down a service this has to be the top priority.
- Multi-channel coverage is pivotal for organizations approaching mobility with the diversity of devices their users have in mind. With true multi-channel support, a developer can write once and deploy across mobile devices, tablets, wearables and desktop. The output should also be native, not Hybrid or Web UI as the experience is not as good.
- Off line data. Managing data in a disconnected world is critical, and challenging to do properly. If a field technician can’t use the device because it is unable to retrieve some data while they are working in an area with no signal would lead to poor adoption. Likewise, if a customer has to wait for their details to load each time they log in, or move from one page to another this would lead them deleting the application. A different but relevant rule of 3.
- Engagement services. This isn’t just about simple notifications, or text messages but about a range of opportunities:
- Engage with customers using the latest rich media, remind about meter readings etc.
- Geofence the notifications to only send info on, for example, an outage, to those in the geographically affected region
- Use notifications to enhance Field operations with interaction between users. For example, if a technician needs authorisation from a manager then build the capability into the Order execution app so send to the Plan and Track managers app.
- Use the notification to trigger an action, for example silently update the data stored on the device with a new work order.
- Pre-built set of adapters for your enterprise systems. Mobile developers know the mobile device, and its capabilities, they do not know how to integrate into your security systems let alone SAP, Salesforce etc.
- Service Level Agreement: Ask how the vendor supports new releases to operating systems. With iOS having something like 20 releases last year how will the vendor ensure the apps continue to run with minimal effort.
- Reporting: What reports does the vendor offer, not just service details but what about Crash Reporting, User Journeys etc.?
Again, this is not an exhaustive list but is instead intended to show that there are a lot of things to be considered when looking at your mobile application strategy.
As you can see, there are many different use cases for mobile within the water utility industry and I’ve touched on a few of them here. You can also see that it is not just a case of getting an agency to build an app, as that leads to questions such as: Where is the data to be stored; who will maintain the app; what’s the cost of upgrades and changes? All of these things need to be considered in your mobile strategy.