Smart phone = smart grid

CIOs must mobilize the workforce and customers

Phil Carson | Aug 16, 2011


Will the "consumerization of IT" affect how smart grids are perceived or participated in by both utility workers and ratepayers? To my mind, that's not just a valid discussion point—it's an immediate imperative. Mobility is a critical forefront in productivity and customer engagement.

Earlier this week, I specifically asked CIO Branndon Kelley at American Municipal Power about the changing role of IT in supporting a mobile utility workforce. His response reflected one definition of the term "consumerization of IT." 

"People want to bring their own devices to the organization—smart phones, tablets, every gadget possible in order to do their job—and their workday [is] strung out across various locations," Kelley told me. "So it's up to CIO leadership to respond and provide secure support. That's driving what I call the 'consumerization of IT.'"

The acronym capturing this trend is BYOD—bring your own device. Increasingly the onus is on CIOs to make that work, not just in the utility business but horizontally across the entire business landscape. In the swirling mists of prehistory—say, 10 years ago—corporations relied on BlackBerrys from Research In Motion, Inc., or had a restrictive list of "approved devices," based on security concerns. That's in-house.

Apple turned that on its head with the iPhone, making mobile computing fun and easy. Today's smart phones have become a fundamental mobile tool for work/life management. Outside the utility's walls, virtually every single ratepayer has a mobile phone. About one-third of Americans own smart phones—that is, devices with computing power, memory, Internet connectivity and the ability to run applications. That's an installed base that will grow to near ubiquity in the next few years as smart phone prices continue to drop. Thus, a mobile controller for home energy management is rapidly becoming a reality, faster than utilities will roll out applications (and consumers will install smart, connected thermostats) to make that possible.

If intelligent utilities want to establish a rapport with their customers, they will race to leverage mobile connectivity—it's the no-brainer of the decade. My colleague, Christopher Perdue has written about TXU's mobile applications, for example, in "TXU Energy Has an App for That: Customer Service is Going Mobile."

In-house, of course, mobile access to sensitive data must be controlled and remote "wiping" of data on a lost handset is the bottom line. Externally, designing applications for relatively small touchscreens that can provide clear data on energy use and billing is the threshold. The ability to remotely change household energy settings will begin with controlling a smart thermostat and eventually morph to controlling any device in the house, as lighting and appliances become smart as well.

Any utility that isn't working on that challenge now—either internally or with third-party help—cannot be serious about customer engagement. 

For years, research has repeatedly shown that companies that provide mobile devices to their workers get more productivity from them. That's despite the extra time they spend talking with family and friends and playing games on their handset. The fact that they have that mobile handset means they're also likely to perform work-related tasks beyond their 9-to-5 routine.

Now, according to a recent IDC survey cited in Computerworld, 40 percent of mobile devices used to access business applications are personally owned, up 10 percent from last year. That's BYOD in full force.

"The same survey found that more than three out of four organizations have no business applications for smart mobile devices and have no plans to create applications . over the next several months," wrote Nicholas Evans in "Consumerization of IT," in Computerworld. "This gap was evident in both internally facing applications and customer-facing applications."

Utilities can take heart; they are not alone. But could there be a more obvious, unexploited opportunity to connect your workers for productivity and engage your customers for whatever purpose you need to engage them?

"Given the potential of mobile devices to increase employee productivity and provide new ways to interact with customers, it's a key opportunity for enterprise IT to exploit," Evans wrote.

Further, mobile enablement is an opportunity "to rethink and redesign business models and processes, so that you fully leverage the new platforms' capabilities and not simply mobile-enable existing processes," Evans added. Cloud computing and social networks may offer opportunities in this area, he noted. 

For forward thinking in that area, I recommend a companion article in Computerworld: "Cloud CIO: What 'consumerization of IT' really means to CIOs," by Bernard Golden. This is CIO talk on what it takes under the hood to exploit mobility for workforce and customers.

"The new challenge for IT [is not] setting limits and narrowing choices, but helping manage this new hybrid infrastructure and in providing guidance to the business on the optimal deployment models for application productivity," Evans concluded. "IT is truly moving . to a far more strategic, trusted advisor role helping to guide key technology, policy and business-related considerations."

I'd love to hear about mobile strategies currently in place at electric utilities. Text messaging for demand response events? Mobile access to an energy use portal? Anyone doing mobile control of home thermostat settings? Readers, let me know.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily


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A reader writes...

Our company works with such utilities as Entergy, Arizona Public Service, Portland General Electric, Kansas City Power & Light, and Idaho Power. In reading your article I had a number of thoughts.

1) Is an application at this stage more for internal clients than the actual consumer? I believe it is.  The normal Joe on the street isn't quite ready to make room on his handset for an application that allows him to view his bill or see his energy consumption. Now, is this coming? Absolutely.  My question is really one of who will have to pay for the application? I don't see him needing one to pay the bill, as the bank or credit card company already does this. But what about energy consumption, being able to lower/raise house temperature remotely if away? This will be a cool one. Yet I believe it will be the thermostat folks that pay to have this application and offer it for free if you purchase their device.

2) Mobile Websites.  This wasn't touched on in the article, but this is where I believe the utilities should be focusing their time and money. It is one thing to go to an app store, search for your utilities application, download it, and then use it. On the other hand, your power is out or you want to view and pay a bill on the fly. Using the browser for such is a no-brainer. Plus, one can easily build out the mobile website to look/feel like an application, then include an icon into their application folder that simply calls the browser and opens up the website. This, to me, is a better use of funds.

3) Lastly is SMS, or text messaging. Our clients are doing everything from power outage alerts and time to restoration over to bill presentment and bill pay, all via SMS. Imagine getting a SMS to let you know in that in two days your account will be drafted for such and such amount. Being able to do a location finder via SMS to find the nearest payment center. Getting the amount you owe via text, a URL to click if you want to view your bill, and simply reply YES if you want to pay your bill on the due date with a pre-determined method of payment. All very simple to set up in a Web-based SMS system that is event driven.

To me, mobile is going to be key in the utility sector. I have been presenting around the United States to utilities now for over 4 years on mobile and better communication. I believe most should work on the website first, then SMS. However, as for the application, I say wait until there is built-up demand or you will spend a fortune on a product that very few will actually use and download.


Giff Gfroerer