Operational Automation for Utilities 101

In the past, we have written about process automation and why it can be so valuable for utilities. By automating repetitive business processes, utilities can save time, save money, and save human expertise for the workflows where it matters most.

We think it is important, however, to think beyond the automation of individual processes. With the right approach to “operational automation,” utilities can not only become more efficient, but open up new strategic possibilities for their organization as a whole.

We explore how in the blog below.

Operational Automation for Utilities: What is it and why does it matter?

We define “operational automation” as an organizational strategy for the employment of automated technology systems which can successfully complete critical business workflows without human assistance. For utilities, this could include a variety of prototypical examples such as:

Within this broad range of examples, automated processes can not only free up human resources for more cognitively complex tasks, but actually reduce the risk of human error (which can compromise data integrity through an issue as simple as a missed keystroke). But how do we distinguish “operational automation,” from related concepts such as process automation? We discuss key differences in the next section.

Operational Automation v. Process Automation

In the past, we have written about process automation for utilities (you can read our introductory guide to process automation here). The concept of process automation is closely related to operational automation, but we think this distinction is conceptually useful. While process automation focuses on making specific, existing business workflows more efficient, operational automation broadens the horizon to transforming these workflows altogether.

Consider the following tiers of utility automation, with increases levels of complexity:

  1. Robotic Process Automation (RPA): save time and money by automating repetitive procedures that do not require real-time decision-making (i.e. data entry, routine data management).

  2. Intelligent Process Automation (IPA): the employment of deep and machine learning techniques capable of learning over time to automate more complex processes, including those requiring real-time decision-making.

  3. Operational Automation: leveraging automation capabilities to strategically transform the day-to-day operations of the utility. Doing so successfully requires integrating data streams from throughout the business. For example, an equipment outage might automatically generate an urgent maintenance alert, a customer outage notification/ETR time, a preventative maintenance record, and an automatic update to asset reliability metrics.

In short, it can be unnecessarily limiting to conceive of automation as “doing what we already do, but cheaper and more efficiently.” For utilities, the ultimate potential of automation lies not just in streamlining repetitive business processes but opening up altogether new possibilities for the business.

Of course, smaller scale process automation might be an important part of a broader operational automation strategy. And IPA/RPA might represent the lowest-hanging fruit for foundational automation investments that can begin generating tangible ROI in short order. But it’s important to consider the broader possibilities for automation in utility organizations.

How can automation transform utility operations?

Thinking about a concrete example is the best way to show how automation can open up new operational possibilities for utilities. Consider utilities’ relationships with their customers.

Utilities are increasingly focused on moving away from harvesting revenue from “ratepayers” and toward more responsive, proactive, and accurate communication with customers. We explore this trend in more depth in our recent blog on digital transformation, and it provides a great example of how automation can be used to both streamline existing workflows and totally rethink a core operational concern for utilities. Consider the levels of automation discussed above in the context of improving the customer experience.

  1. Robotic Process Automation of routine customer service workflows such as processing and routing incoming customer service calls, sending out billing reminders, and automatically translating outage analytics into ETR times which are forwarded to the relevant customer accounts.

  2. Intelligent Process Automation in the customer service context might include Natural Language Processing to automatically analyze and respond to written customer queries or machine learning to automatically analyze the most at-risk customers in an impending storm path (and automatically provide preemptive warnings).

  3. Operational Automation of Customer Service would expand to focus on automating the customer journey wherever possible without negatively impacting the customer experience. Ideally, a customer could sign up for service through an automated chat bot, receive automated billing reminders when a bill is coming due or a credit card is expired, and receive instant, automated service for routine requests like balance inquiries, questions about service restoration in the wake of a storm, and more. Automation becomes the primary vehicle for customer service delivery, not just a way of getting specific workflows done faster.

Successful operational automation should help both the utility and the customer, cutting OPEX associated with customer service while enhancing the user experience with timely, accurate data (like ETR times) that can make a big difference to the quality of customer’s service experience. We take a deeper look at why analytics are so essential to building a better utility customer experience in our blog here.

Learn More About Implementing Automation with HEXstream

Customer experience is just one example of a core business area where automation has serious potential for utilities. Operational automation can be viable anywhere that operational data is available to be harnessed into a data pipeline capable of reliably feeding automated systems. This pipeline must be carefully integrated with source systems, different business units, and various customer communication channels. And it needs to work reliably, protect data quality, and minimize interference with parallel human workflows.

HEXstream has the proven ability to deliver automation solutions that are founded on enterprise-quality data infrastructure. We take pride in not only offering deep technical expertise, but extensive ground-level experience working in the utility industry.

If you are interested in learning more about using process automation to unlock new efficiencies at your utility, please connect with our team.

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