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Implementing AMI? Five questions every utility executive should consider

Implementing AMI? Five questions every utility executive should consider

Whether it is Electric AMI, Water AMI, or a combination of the two that a utility is planning on implementing, there are numerous questions that need to be addressed to ensure the utility is set up for success.

Below are five key questions all utilities should address:

  • Do you have a communications plan in place to provide sufficient information to your internal staff and customers?

The purpose of a communications plan is to:

  • Layout the responsibilities, timeline and activities required to address the outreach and educational needs of each specific stakeholder group.

  • This plan will be leveraged throughout the AMI implementation with periodic adjustments to the communication frequency, language/tone, audience and/or internal responsibilities to adapt to project developments as required.

In terms of the utilities’ customers, the communication plan should:

  • Educate customers on the AMI program

  • Inform them of the benefits of the new technology

Customers will also inquire about:

  • Length of the installation

  • Whether their service will be interrupted

  • If the new service will be more expensive

Customer communication channels may consist of the utilities’ website, newsletters (internal and external), public outreach events or postcards that are sent to the customers, or even personal phone calls.

The communication plan should share the objective of the project to the internal staff. Communications should be drafted weekly, (whether they are slides posted on an office video board, or blogs posted on the utilities intranet) to share the progress of the project, highlight recent accomplishments, and outline upcoming key activities.

  • Have you developed a training plan and materials to educate your staff on the new technology and changes in current state processes due to the new AMI technology?

The purpose of a training plan is to ensure all impacted utility employees are properly trained on the new AMI technology (e.g. IT systems, field devices, meters, processes) prior to any changes to their role.

This document should support the AMI implementation plan and adjust as needed throughout the project. An effective way to develop a training plan is to hold a whiteboard session during which the team identifies all of the business roles per work stream, which individual roles/work streams will be impacted by the new technology, and what learning objectives the training sessions should deliver.

Once this information is mapped out, a training plan timeline should be implemented to prioritize which training courses are critical for the success of the AMI implementation, and which training courses are important, but not essential for the program’s overall success to allocate limited training resources.

  • How much testing will you complete before mass deployment?

Testing basic end-to-end system functionality is essential to ensure that the Meter-To-Cash process is still functioning correctly. However, there is significantly more testing that needs to occur prior to mass deployment of AMI technology. The four main areas all utilities should consider testing are:

  1. Hardware

  2. Unit

  3. System Integration

  4. User Acceptance

Hardware Testing: This testing consists of the specific AMI technology field devices that will be individually and independently observed for proper operation and functionality. These tests can consist of bench tests and small-scale field tests. Hardware tests are often completed in the factory when the hardware is built.

Unit Testing: Unit testing validates the functionality of the specific software used during the AMI implementation. Utilities want to ensure their software is operating properly and has the appropriate “out of the box” functionality (modified specifically to fit their business needs and identified user groups and permissions). Test environments will be validated for proper setup and configuration in this specific testing phase.

System Integration Testing: After both hardware and unit testing has been executed, the utility can test the integration of each system involved with the AMI implementation. System integration testing will validate the end-to-end data flow to ensure proper operation of the systems from meter reading through customer bill generation. All interfaces to the AMI system will be tested with a focus on integration and data flow from the AMI head-end to the meter data management system to the customer information system.

User Acceptance Testing: The final phase of testing consists of user acceptance testing, which is where the end-users at the utility will complete tests to ensure the businesses users are able to efficiently and accurately perform their job roles using the AMI systems. UAT incorporates portions of hardware, unit, and system integration testing as well as the testing and validation of business process adjustments and training related to the AMI program.

  • How will the implementation of AMI affect how your business currently operates (business processes)?

If you think your current business processes will remain unchanged following the implementation of a new technology, you are very optimistic. Implementing AMI affects the current processes of not only the field operations staff, but also the call center, billing, engineering and IT, among others.

To ensure all of the business processes are addressed, facilitated workshops with each department lead are necessary in order to gain a better understanding of how they currently operate. Once you are comfortable with the current state processes, you will need to identify which specific activities will alter based on the AMI technology, and build out the new process flows that take AMI into account.

After all of the business processes are re-defined, they should be tested at the beginning of your AMI implementation or better yet – as part of a pilot - to make sure they are efficient and effective, and that your staff has learned the necessary skills to complete the new activities.

  • Do you have a change management plan in place?

The discussion of change management is often one of the most difficult conversations to have because no one wants to be responsible for their employees losing their jobs. However, when it comes to AMI, change management is a reality and many manually operated business tasks are replaced with automated technology.

Unfortunately, this instills fear in many employees since they may be the one out of a job. Based on experience, communicating the anticipated organizational changes to your employees early in the program helps to build and maintain trust across the organization.

Honesty is also essential when it comes to change management. Openly communicating plans helps to achieve buy-in from your employees, ultimately the ones who are responsible for operating your business. The internal communication channels identified in question one can be leveraged to highlight the business’ vision and help lead a successful implementation.  Townhall and departmental level presentations by project leadership and executives are also effective methods to communicate this information.

Each of these questions should be addressed during the planning phases before any utility decides to implement AMI to ensure successful deployment.

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