A Farewell to Forms: Things to Consider when Selecting Vegetation Management Software

Industry // March 05, 2017

By Senior Technology Consultant Nathan Jones

When faced with selecting software to help manage your vegetation (VM) program, the choices can seem daunting at first. If this is your first time taking the plunge and going digital, congratulations!  Those dusty old file boxes full of work orders and crumpled up circuit maps thank you. Just like any other transition in life, the difficulty or ease of the process depends upon the amount of planning and research that go into the preparation process. There are many factors that differentiate the available software systems, I’m going to address two of the most important ones: mapping and workflows.

First, let’s talk about mapping. Chances are, if you are at all familiar with the software side of VM operations, you have heard of ESRI. ESRI stands for Environmental Systems Research Institute, and is to digital mapping what Apple is to mobile phones. It is a highly ubiquitous technology, and many utilities use it organization-wide. For VM software to truly fit into the vast majority of utility organizations, it needs to be easily integrated with ESRI, or able to be translated without excessive data manipulation. If it isn’t, the data is in danger of being isolated within a VM silo and rendered useless to the rest of the utility. The data collected during VM operations can be crucial to other departments within a utility, and the ability to export the data quickly and correctly can make a critical difference. 

The data collected during VM operations can be crucial to other departments within a utility, and the ability to export the data quickly and correctly can make a critical difference. 

Damaged infrastructure, hazardous conditions, outage locations, crew locations, circuit completion data, etc. are all valuable utility-wide. ArcGIS is ESRI’s geographic information system (GIS), and is typically used to work with maps and the associated geographic data. A very powerful tool, ArcGIS is effectively operated by the experienced user, but the average tree worker can quickly get in over his/her head while using the software. To be truly useful, a good software package will have a simplified interface that allows field workers to spend less of their valuable time entering data (or being trained to enter data) and more of their time working.

Next, let’s talk about the concept of “workflow”. Workflow is defined as a sequence of processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion. Pretty obvious, right? What may not be so obvious is how choosing software can be a great time to take a step back and evaluate your current modus operandi and look for ways that it can be improved. As you read this, sit back and think for a moment. What data are you collecting and why? Are you associating locations with jobs/timesheets? Is trees per mile really a useful metric? How many hands touch a piece of work from start to finish? Do your supervisors spend hours each week collecting timesheets from far-flung crews?  If a change needs to be made on the fly, is your current process dynamic enough to accommodate it? Are your processes simple enough that even the most inexperienced team members can handle it – or are you spending excessive time training?

A good software provider will take the time to get to know your specific organization’s needs and tailor the workflows in order to simplify your data collection and analysis. You hear horror stories of utilities that spent small fortunes on software systems with rigid frameworks that ultimately complicated their processes and could not deliver on even the simplest of workflows.

I have dealt with many utilities in my career, and one thing is for sure, they are all unique! While the ultimate goal of a utility is the same (delivering a reliable source of power to customers/owners), VM frameworks are almost always different. One utility may have a well-staffed VM department that utilizes several different contractors, while another may have an operations manager who oversees a small handful of in-house employees. Software that is good for one utility may not necessarily be good for another.

To further complicate things, one utility may not be the same over time. Your needs today may not necessarily be your needs tomorrow. Emerald ash borer is waging war nationwide, Mountain Pine Beetle infestations have reached biblical proportions, and wildfire is a careless cigarette butt away. The key to finding a quality software provider is versatility. A versatile system can handle the demands of today, while being flexible enough to meet the ever shifting needs of a utility over time.

One final piece of advice… I mentioned earlier that all utilities are unique. When selecting a software provider, don’t be afraid to shop around and pick the software that is right for you. Schedule demonstrations. Look at references. Evaluate your workflows. Ask questions. What failures have they had? Can they meet your needs today and tomorrow? Will they treat you like a partner instead of just another customer? Will they answer the phone if there is an issue or just connect you to an overseas call center? These are all things to think about. Happy hunting, and remember, don’t be seduced by a shiny new system that doesn’t handle your workflows. You’ll end up with a Ferrari that you can’t take to the grocery store.

Terra Spectrum Technologies Technology Consultant Nathan Jones wrote an article titled “A Farewell to Forms: Things to Consider when Selecting Vegetation Management Software.” The article was published in the 2017 March/April issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.

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