The Safe Use of Mobile Technology

By  Pat Brans — September 10, 2013

Mobile Enterprise spoke with Karen Austin, Senior Vice President and CIO at Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), to find out how she's creating a secure environment and supporting her business users amid all the changes in form factor and operating systems in today's market.

ME Mobile Enterprise: What mobile devices and operating systems do you support at PG&E?

KA Karen Austin: First let me point out that we have a vision to support any device, anytime and anywhere. But we have to balance that vision with our need to deliver services in a cost-effective manner. At the same time, we have to make sure we are protecting our corporate systems and infrastructure.

To give you an idea of the numbers, we support 14,000 laptops, 6,000 rugged laptops for our field force, 900 tablets and about 7,000 smartphones. We support company-issued devices, as well as BYOD. We make sure all devices operate in a secure environment, but at the same time we want to provide freedom of choice to our employees.

More and more of our business users are getting access to mobile technology. We’re delivering an increasing amount of mobile data to our field users. We provide them with anything from maps to instructions. Our goal is to provide a more robust digital capability in the field so that we can eliminate paper, which is ultimately a safer way to manage information.

For our notebook computers, we support Windows OS. For our tablets and smartphones, we support  iOS, BlackBerry and some Android devices. As technology continues to mature, we’ll expand our support of different form factors and operating systems to support our business users.

ME: PG&E operates in a heavily regulated environment, how has that impacted your decisions around mobility?

KA: Every day at PG&E, we’re looking at areas of inspection, maintenance, engineering, and construction to see where we can provide access to compliance and engineering records through mobile technology.

When I arrived at PG&E two years ago, 90% of what the field force did was on paper. It’s really important in a regulated environment that you track information and keep it on file. So we’re always looking to digitize the data we collect to secure it.

For example, on the electric side, we have to perform overhead inspections of our assets on a regular basis. Rather than filling out a bunch of forms on paper, and having somebody transcribe that into a system later on, we can now leverage a mobile device to allow them to capture the information right there at the inspection point. They can take pictures if necessary, and they can capture position through GPS.

This is a richer set of information, and it’s digitized. Nobody has to re-key the data — a process that has always been both tedious and error prone.

ME: How has your field-based workforce responded to the new technologies?

KA: It’s been very positive. One of our critical processes involves detecting gas leaks. When I first looked at these business processes, I saw they were doing most of this on paper, so we decided to have them use tablets. This allows them to capture the information about each inspection and feed that into an automated system.

Thanks to this mobile solution, they can now do their jobs much more without redundancy. Everybody involved has taken on this new way of doing things with a very positive attitude.

In any field force, you’ll see different reactions to technology—and this is true across the spectrum of age and cultural background. There are those who are crying out for the new technology and there are those who are more resistant. We take the time to walk people through the change and get them to a comfort level as needed. Eventually, they all become very proficient at it, but for some it does take more training and change management.

ME: Can you give an example of how mobile technology has made life better for your customers?

KA: Beyond using mobile technology to make our services safer and more reliable, we’re also giving our customers the power to access information when and where they need it. Given that we’re in Silicon Valley, a lot of people are tech savvy and are used to having anytime/anywhere access to the data they need.

We offer a service to our customers where we send them text messages once their energy consumption crosses over certain thresholds throughout the month. In addition, we provide a mobile app that allows customers to pay their bills.

Even more exciting this year is that we are deploying a new initiative called “Channel of Choice,” which will give the customer information in three different areas: outage, billing and payment. Shortly after that, we’re going to add on more usage analysis and energy efficiency.

There’s an initiative called “The Green Button,” which PG&E lead in partnership with the White House. This is about putting usage information in a standard record format, allowing third party companies to read the data, match it with other information—for example, with weather systems, or with information on electric vehicles. Allowing innovative third parties to match the data with other data ultimately provides the customer with a richer set of services.

ME: How does IT need to respond to the mobile demands of users?

KA:  We need to focus on time to market. The faster we can get new technology in the hands of our internal users and customers, the faster they will all benefit from the value. Although we need to move quickly, it’s also important that we not compromise security— especially data privacy.

We see security as an essential aspect of the design of any mobile environment. Secure access to information anytime/anywhere requires getting the human factor right, and that requires alignment with different organizations in the company.

We’re heavily involved with our HR department to ensure compliance. We’re also aligned with legal, security, sourcing, and bargaining units. Once you have that alignment it’s relatively easy to provide secure mobile systems.

In general, we are re-enforcing a culture of security and safe use of technology within PG&E.


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