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How smartphones help CPS Energy boost the bottom line

By Al Sacco, CIO
July 11, 2008 02:32 PM ET

CIO - In early 2006, San-Antonio, Texas-based CPS Energy, the nation's largest municipally-owned energy provider, was by all accounts riding the road to riches. The company had the highest bond ratings of any such utility provider. Its workforce and customer-base in general expressed satisfaction. And most importantly, it was profitable. In other words, there were no external signs that the company was about to launch a technology program that would redefine the way it did business and reshape its workforce of roughly 4,000.

There weren't external signs, but for those in the know, including Christopher Barron, CPS Energy's VP and CIO, it couldn't have been more clear that a change was imminent-and that the future of the company might depend on it.

"We had a much larger workforce than a business our size maybe should have," Barron says.

Barron, who had recently been named CPS's first CIO, looked at other companies with large mobile workforces like its own, companies like UPS and FedEx, and saw a huge disparity in the way his business was operating. For instance, specific CPS workers had little or no access to IT systems and resources while away from the office or warehouse. They were often required to visit work sites or customer locations to diagnose issues or suggest fixes before reporting back to the appropriate departments or parties, which would then initiate the next step of the resolution process. That could mean dispatching additional workers, and the whole ordeal could take days.

"If we kept with the amount of manual labor that it took for us to accomplish that work, we would not be in the position to be competitive in the future," Barron says.

From this realization, the company's Magellan Program was born. The Magellan Program was envisioned by Barron and his colleagues-the CIO was and continues to be the program's lead sponsor-as a way to better mobilize and connect its traditionally siloed workforce to the people and systems they needed to do their jobs. The goals of the programs: extend CPS's networking infrastructure; build its own secure Wi-Fi networks in offices and warehouse; and deploy smartphones and custom mobile applications to all CPS staffers who didn't currently have a laptop or other mobile device.

Project Magellan is currently about halfway deployed: CPS expects it to be fully implemented in 2011.

Getting Smart: Initial Challenges

CPS Energy currently employs approximately 3,660 people; more than half are domestic mobile or field workers doing construction, excavation and other manual labor. In 2006, when Magellan was initially launched, just 300 staffers had been equipped with smartphones, and most of them were office workers. Today, more than half of the entire workforce has BlackBerry or Windows Mobile devices and access to a plethora of corporate data.

For Barron, the first and most significant challenge in deploying smartphones to such a large user base was getting executive buy-in.

"One of our biggest headaches has been, and continues to be, the perception that the technology brings little to the table other than e-mail, and it costs a lot," Barron says.

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