The Digital Impact of COVID-19 on Utilities

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Robotic Process Automation: A Lifesaver for Utilities during COVID-19

 
September 22, 2020

While COVID-19 has created reverberations across the globe, it reinforced the importance of technology for organizations to stay resilient. The utilities industry, in particular, witnessed demand-side fluctuations both in the commercial and consumer sectors, with the pandemic changing the ways we work and live. New regulations that have risen in the wake of economic uncertainties have also magnified the challenges faced by the industry. In this blog, we will see how digital tools can reinstate and stabilize utilities operations. 

Role of Technology 

For utility companies, the pandemic has only complicated existing challenges, such as energy transition and constantly evolving regulations. Now, with a limited workforce and backlogs of unprocessed invoices, purchase orders, and work orders, there is an increase in the mean time for service restoration and accounts receivable cycles. At this juncture, it is critical for utility companies to wisely utilize their distributed workforce only where it is required and at the same time, ensure their safety. 

Amid this overall crisis, robotic process automation (RPA) has emerged as an extended arm for utilities to improve cashflow and counter the pandemic-induced workforce issues. While RPA’s driving principle is to reduce manual work, given the current situation, this technology can help utilities: 

  • Eliminate inefficiencies in the system 

  • Improve workforce productivity 

  • Ensure data accuracy 

  • Stabilize revenue and cashflow 

  • Increase personnel and asset safety  

Application of RPA in Utilities 

This pandemic in a way gave a broader perspective to RPA beyond bulk value automation and toward ‘automation for purpose’. In general, RPA is always associated with reducing manual work load, and hence, the most preferred areas of application have been in supply chain, human resources, and finance. However, the challenges imposed during the pandemic are creating new opportunities and encouraging utilities to look at unconventional areas like workforce management, asset management, and more in order to introduce RPA. 

To illustrate, in a typical day, the productivity of the field force is directly influenced by the accuracy of details available from work orders. In turn, work order accuracy is based on information including asset details entered by the agents. Wrong asset information would imply incorrect work orders and loss of productivity for the field force. Here, balancing the criticality of accuracy and field force utilization has to be done in such a way so that there is no margin for errors. This is one instance where RPA can be of immense value, considering its ability to perform menial tasks such as data entry, which not only improves the turnaround time of the process but also accounts for reliability. 

Here and beyond, optical character recognition (OCR) and intelligent character recognition (ICR) capabilities can be leveraged to digitalize image and text processing and automate data entry of information such as asset details and accounts receivables from invoices and purchase orders. These capabilities can eliminate errors and speed up the procurement process, supply chain cycle, and service restoration time, eliminating manual dependency and paper processing. 

RPA when clubbed with chatbots or contact centers powered by natural language processing (NLP) technologies can also replace human customer service agents to a significant extent. This allows customer queries and complaints to be logged, with RPA helping with customer data acquisition. Straightforward details such as a user’s location, complaint type and severity, callback number, etc., can be recorded automatically, and human agents can be involved based on priority. Automation can also help with allocating personnel on field tasks based on the severity of these cases. 

Conclusion 

For a long time now, automation was perceived to be a threat for human labor. Unknowingly, the pandemic has helped us realize the purpose of automation in its true spirit as ‘machine with human’ as opposed to ‘machine versus human'. As the demands set forth by the pandemic have pointed out to us, automation in conjunction with manpower will be the answer to effective operations and reduced efforts. The new ‘remote operations’ paradigm that requires more accuracy and productivity than ever, has additionally pushed industries to explore the adoption of digital technologies like RPA. Utilities that embrace risks during such difficult times and adopt digital transformation will have weathered the storm and emerge stronger in the post COVID-19 world.

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Rekha Natarajan is the Technology Head in the Manufacturing and Utilities Business Group at TCS, where she has over 19 years of experience. Her expertise lies in the areas of quality assurance, automation and artificial intelligence. For over two years, she has been associated with the automation function in the TCS’ Business group on initiatives involving but not limited to robotic process automation, IT operations automation, application services automation, and quality engineering transformation.