The Hammer and The Nail

Industry // June 25, 2018

By Senior Technology Consultant Nathan Jones

“If your only tool is a hammer, then all the world looks like a nail”, as the old saying goes. In a technology-driven world, this has never been truer. With the power of innovation snowballing at a dizzying rate, methods that served us well in the past suddenly become obsolete. The do-it-all hammer quickly becomes nothing more than an outdated blunt instrument. All too often, however, we fail to realize our tools are outdated before the impact to the bottom line is obvious and irreversible. Industries that rely heavily on elbow grease (of which utility vegetation management is at the forefront) are especially susceptible to this type of logical pitfall.

The “more boots, more saws, more trucks” mindset of yesteryear tends to view technology as a hurdle to clear, another obstacle between the manpower and the trees to be trimmed. The opposite is more often the case – technology can pave the bumpy dirt road of an operation, removing barriers and providing a more insightful and efficient operation. Which is why we were so excited this past year when Northwestern Energy embraced a technology-driven outlook and began working with Terra Spectrum Technologies in conjunction with CNUC to begin the process of converting Northwestern Energy to a digital workflow process.

Northwestern Energy is like a lot of utilities. A solid leadership team had created a successful vegetation management program, and they were ready to take the next step. Once the decision was made to move forward, the utility partnered with Terra Spectrum Technologies and CNUC to examine their processes and determine what their ideal electronic system would look like. When rebuilding paper-based systems, utilities often take the opportunity not only to digitize their data collection but to hold a magnifying glass to their processes and determine where fundamental improvements can be made.

The process can often times be tedious (you don’t know what you don’t know), but Northwestern Energy was up to the challenge and ultimately laid the groundwork for a successful VM software deployment that will transform how the utility manages its VM program.

As we all know, there is no such thing as a “finished job” in the VM world. As soon as the climber’s boots touch the ground, the tree is reacting to the cut and working to replace the foliage that has been removed.

The same is true in a sense where technology is concerned. The job isn’t “finished” when the software has initially been deployed in the field. In addition to the initial training session before the software is deployed, the system needs to be constantly maintained to serve the dynamic needs of an ever-changing utility environment, periodic training/retraining sessions need to be held in an industry with a notoriously high turnover rate, and contingencies need to be planned for in case of disaster (natural or otherwise).

In the end, a software system is just another piece of technology that is aiming toward the ultimate goal of a utility- to keep the lights on in the most cost-effective way possible. The only way to do that is to keep the lines of communication open at all times, and be able to adapt and grow with the utility through changing conditions.

Technology can be scary, I know. The siren song of “the next big thing” has lured many utilities’ ships too close to the rocks, ending in disaster. The goal to keep in mind throughout the process of acquiring new technology should be to harness the particular technology that you need that is both meaningful and beneficial to your organization. Otherwise, you risk being burned by “the next big thing” that looks great but doesn’t provide any tangible benefit.

So if your VM program is contemplating ditching the piles of paper for an electronic system, take a cue from a forward thinking utility like Northwestern Energy and take the plunge. Just be sure to keep your eyes open and don’t let the proverbial hammer hit your literal thumb.

Terra Spectrum Technologies Technology Consultant Nathan Jones wrote an article titled “The Hammer and The Nail.” The article was published in the 2018 May/June issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.