A Winning Wireless Implementation

Utilities have been at the forefront of deploying mobile solutions in an effort to improve customer satisfaction now that deregulation is allowing consumers in an increasing number of states to choose their energy provider.

New Jersey Natural Gas (NJNG), a local gas distributor that serves more than 409,000 customers, is a role model for other utilities and companies that are looking to implement wireless systems: NJNG won an Award of Excellence from Beyond Computing

magazine in 2000 in recognition of its seamless implementation of a new system and its collaborative process with vendors Bell Atlantic and MDSI (Mobile Data Solutions).

NJNG's $5.2 million Field Order Dispatch System II (FODSII) project began in October 1998 and was launched in November 1999--on time and 15 percent under budget. FODSII, a wireless communications system, replaces a mobile data system and automates a number of customer care services. For example, the system calls customers to let them know when service personnel are on their way, pages service employees with emergency calls and maps field personnel's locations to aid dispatchers in making assignments. More than 250 field employees (about 32 percent of NJNG's workforce) use the system.

Jim Hallock, business manager of customer service dispatch and FODSII project manager, credits the project's success to involving end users in every step of the process. "People from every user group in the company--from top management to appliance repair and street-cut crews--played a part in the implementation," says Hallock.

NJNG saved a large amount of the money because it established a core project team in-house to oversee the implementation instead of hiring a consultant to conduct a needs analysis. Five people served on the core team: one hardware specialist, one software specialist, two field supervisors and Hallock, representing the dispatch and call centers. "Our company is strongly focused on re-engineering and developing project-management skills, so naturally this focus affected FODSII," says Hallock. "The core team took top-quality project management training, then put what we learned into practice." The core team's training in change control procedures and recognizing and managing scope creep also helped keep cost overruns at bay.

One of the first steps was to get employee feedback on system requirements and needs. Once objectives were set, NJNG hosted a vendor fair and asked more than 200 employees to view and vote on various hardware options. "We invited six vendors to come on-site and demonstrate their software," reports Hallock. "They had to stick to a very detailed script we had created so that employees would get the same information from each company and be able to make an apples-to-apples comparison."

NJNG assembled a second group of 10 service employees, including union representatives, to help direct system design. These employees helped draft every screen used in the system and then worked as trainers alongside their colleagues in the field during rollout. "This group's ability to train and troubleshoot problems in the field has taken a lot of the pressure off our IT group and lent a real sense of team to the project," Hallock says.

Of course, not even award-winning implementations are flawless. So, in addition to gaining user involvement, upper-management support and solid project management skills, Hallock advises other companies considering going wireless to:

Document like crazy. "It seems obvious, but you can't put enough in writing," comments Hallock. "When you're dealing with so many people internally and externally, you need to document everything so that your recall and credibility stay high."

Develop strong relationships with the vendor's top managers. "Some issues are bound to get kicked upstairs, so it's best if you've established ties with those people ahead of time," says Hallock. "Plus, you'll be working with these vendors for a long time, and some of the individuals with whom you begin the project may not be the same individuals with whom you end the project. Meeting and establishing a relationship with upper management fosters continuity."

Visit the vendor's site. "We did most of our vendor research through conference calls," says Hallock. "In retrospect, I think it would have been an advantage to go onsite and get a hands-on feel for how they approach processes and problems."

Allow more time to incorporate user feedback. "We had the channels established to get lots of user input and feedback, but there were times when we couldn't use it all because of time constraints," reports Hallock. "I know you can't please everybody, but the more users you make happy, the more use you'll get out of the system."

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