The good, the bad and the ugly: The technology conflict which threatens field services
Clint Eastwood’s classic spaghetti western was released in 1966; its movie theme is rated as one of the most memorable, but it is its name: “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” that seems to be an ideal description of the dilemma facing both, asset owners and service providers in today’s field service market.
To explain, if your company is a utility or a commercial asset owner ( e.g cable company) and you have replaced your own field techs with an outsourced model of a sub-contractor/service provider company, then who should be supplying the technology for the field technician scheduling and work order completion?
In looking at this question, I have divided the issue into three pieces: The Good is about strategy as options are still open, The Bad are the IT changes driven by any strategy choice, and The Ugly is the likely market change in the mid-term that may make your strategy decision redundant.
One of the best Gartner papers in recent history is Jim Robinson’s March 2017 paper on successful field service buyers. Specifically, it highlights that companies are motivated to purchase new Field Service solutions mostly for better functionality and, interestingly, it mentions an emergence of an off-the-shelf trend rather than internal development. However, irrespective of the solution, who should be making this investment?
In an ideal world, asset owners should be responsible for the solution. The advantages are self-evident: consistency across your service providers ”SPs”, independence from SP suppliers which allows for better contract negotiation, ownership of the process which at a customer level will always remain with the asset owner.
For the service provider, the issue is really one of a value add – how do they differentiate if they are reduced to simply providing labour? This is, indeed, a major issue but technology is probably not the answer. Many SPs have developed in-house solutions as their key distinction but the cost and speed to maintain a viable bespoke solution is extraordinarily challenging. Value add is more likely in quality systems and management approach. However, the challenge is that many asset owners have not stepped up to having a field service tech solution, so SPs must have a technology solution in their back pocket to win new business – my suggestion is to have an off-the-shelf product that is fast to deploy and highly configurable to reflect the varying needs of your customers.
Any field service strategy choice has an IT impact, and playing with IT is something we all prefer to avoid.
In reviewing one of our customer’s requests for change in the first nine months live in-field, the statistics are: 6 major data changes, 14 business process workflow changes and a resulting 72 IT change requests (the IT number is a multiplier of changes, because you need to reflect through test, pre-production and production systems). Now, there is nothing wrong with this volume of change requests, they reflect a normal process of management changing their emphasis and staffing their work practices as field automation matures in the company. However, if the asset owner had two or three SPs with their own solutions, these changes would be required by each of them, and the test cycle would have to reproduce for each individual implementation – hell on wheels for all parties!
So this also points to an asset owner supplying a solution or, at the very least, a reduction in the number of SPs engaged.
Our referenced Gartner article also highlights the plans its surveyed customers foresee in the next 24 months: 60 percent placed optimized scheduling, mapping, workflow, document management and analytics on their “to do” list. However, I believe the next 24 months have greater challenges, specifically the introduction of “pull-based” scheduling models in contrast to the markets’ historical “push-based” scheduling.
How would this work? A technician would see on his smartphone jobs in his area that he is qualified for – he can then select which jobs he will complete. This simple reversal of jobs being “pulled” by technicians rather than “pushed” out to them has radical implications on scheduling, technician payment and the SP value add. I would not argue that this model will replace all job allocation, but judging from market feedback, I would advocate that 30 to 70 percent of jobs may move to this model depending on your industry dynamics. It will be a massive disrupter and specifically makes questionable the investments in scheduling optimization and the SPs key role of resource management.
My conclusion is that asset owners can outsource their labour but not their field service systems.
Sub-contractors need to focus on a new value add rather than IT systems.
Current strategy decisions should reflect on the impact of “pull-based” models emerging over the next months in the market.
And a final note of caution, any decisions made will probably affect your efficiency and effectiveness in the field for the next 10 years. Tread lightly.