An Introduction to Process Automation for Utilities

Process automation can help utilities work more efficiently across the organization. Today, automation solutions can streamline a variety of organizational workflows.

In this article, we provide an overview of process automation, look at a few important related terms, and examine some valuable utility use cases.

Examples we discuss in the article below include:

  • Expediting customer service responses by automatically fulfilling routine customer service requests.
  • Quickly generating regulatory compliance reports and automatically keeping them up-to-date when data changes.
  • Eliminating errors and delays by automatically processing hand-written and natural language notes from field technicians.

What is Process Automation?

Process automation simply describes using technology to automate business processes. This term is more relevant than ever because new capabilities like AI and machine learning are making it possible to automate more complex processes than was possible in the past.

You will often hear two terms used to describe related but distinct approaches to process automation: RPA and IPA (or Hyper Automation). We briefly explain the difference below. Collectively, these approaches simply mean that process automation can be used on more diverse types of data than ever.

What is RPA? | Robotic Process Automation

Robotic Process Automation is a technology approach that allows for the automation of repetitive tasks. In short, RPA can automate workflows that involve a repeated procedure that does not require real-time decision making. The value proposition for RPA solutions is straightforward: save time and money while eliminating human error, allowing professionals to focus on tasks that truly require human input.

What is IPA? | Intelligent Process Automation

Intelligent Process Automation is a technology approach that employs techniques like deep- and machine learning to automate more complicated processes. IPA solutions also save time and money, but they can automate tasks that go beyond simple repetition of the same steps. A well-executed IPA system will actually learn on the job based on human feedback, allowing it to improve performance and become more independent over time.

By drawing on cumulative learning, IPA solutions dramatically expand the range of automation to workflows requiring real-time decision-making. McKinsey goes so far as to call IPA part of the “the next-generation operating model for the digital world.”

How Process Automation Makes a Business Impact for Utilities

Both process automation approaches have myriad potential use cases for utilities. Even relatively straightforward customer-facing automation can offer substantial business value. An article from the Utility Analytics Institute poses the following scenario:

“[During high bill season] imagine that your utility knew that during that time, 100,000 customers went online to make payment arrangements. Of those, only half were successful. About 40,000 of those ended up calling your utility, accounting for more than half of the 70,000 calls received. At a cost of around $6-$7 per call, those 40,000 customers cost your utility approximately $250,000 that year.”

With large annual costs incurred supporting customer service requests, automating even a modest portion of routine requests can offer substantial savings for utilities. Tasks like those payment arrangements discussed above, service start-stops, address changes, and billing balance inquiries can be fulfilled quickly and precisely, usually without human intervention. Customers receive quick service, while service representatives are freed from repetitive data entry chores to focus on more complex customer service needs. Natural Language Processing can even be used to automatically process requests submitted via text, e-mail, or online form.

Customer service is just one example of process automation for utilities. We explore some other important examples below.

Example Process Automation Use Cases for Utilities

  1. High-Speed, High-Accuracy Invoice Processing: in utilities, as in many organizations, employees spend a great deal of time transferring granular invoicing data to an invoice processing system.

    RPA solutions can be configured to automatically analyze invoices, extract the relevant information, and create new entities like vendors if necessary. Initiating this process can be as simple as sending an e-mail with attached invoices to the backend of the process automation system.

    Once the data is processed, a human supervisor receives an alert and can simply issue an approval to input the information into the invoicing system. 

  2. Digitize Field Notes for Better Record-Keeping and Collaboration: large amounts of detailed operational data are recorded in the notes taken by field technicians and customer service agents.

    This documentation often takes the form of quick text typed out using a nearby device or simply a hand-written paper note. For many utilities, this data is not systematically captured and stored. Even laborious manual data-entry of notes is prone to errors.

    Process automation can dramatically streamline the recording of such notes. Techniques like optical character recognition can even be used to automatically scan, label, and input handwritten notes. Meanwhile, natural language processing (NLP) allows for the automated processing of virtually any set of text data. From there, an IPA-system can be employed to classify incoming data and route it to the correct system (for example, a note on a customer-reported equipment outage could be forwarded to the relevant technician team).

  3. Automated Compliance Assistance: utility companies face regulations that mandate regular reporting. This requires repeated work to gather the required data and assemble a report for regulators. For many utilities, this process can take up months of valuable time.

    An automated data integration process can handle large volumes of the data extraction work required for building the necessary reports. From there, relevant metrics can be automatically placed in the proper document.

    Compliance automation solutions can even be configured to automatically track relevant databases for updated data that would necessitate a change to reporting documentation. This capability means this automation not only saves huge amounts of time but ensures reporting is kept fully accurate and up-to-date.

Learning More About Process Automation Solutions for Your Utility

The right underlying data infrastructure is an essential foundation for enabling effective automation. Automated processes need access to a consistent pipeline of quality data, requiring careful integration with source systems throughout the organization. Output needs to be carefully communicated to the relevant business unit (or customer). And this automated process needs to work consistently without sacrificing data integrity or interfering with human workflows.

HEXstream has the proven ability to deliver process 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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