Field Service Talent Shortage Part 4: The Role that Technology Can Play

Over the past three weeks, we’ve shared our research and insight on dealing with the aging workforce challenge. In part 1 of the series, we framed the challenge of the aging workforce in field service. In part 2, we focused on the opportunity available in supporting a multi-generational workforce. And in part 3 we highlighted the major steps being taken to solve this talent crisis. Now onto the final piece.

It’s easy to say that technology can solve all the problems of an aging workforce in field service. It’s also easy to link every emerging technology with the solution. For the purpose of today’s discussion, it’s appropriate to focus on four technology types that will play a major role in helping service organizations face this talent crisis.

I’ll group the solutions into two primary categories:

Efficiency Drivers

These solutions are designed to increase the efficiency of the field service workforce. This means increasing the volume of tasks that can be completed without a corresponding increase in workforce levels. These solutions tie into knowledge expansion as well, but their primary purpose is to improve efficiency.

Mobility

While most organizations indicate that their field service technicians carry a mobile device, we are still in the early stages of mobile empowerment in field service. What I mean by this is that there are significant opportunities for mobile-led efficiency gains that are yet to be tapped at most field service organizations. Most mobile investments have focused on automating administrative tasks typically completed on a paper form. The completion of these tasks is still inefficient and time consuming, it’s just transferred from paper to a mobile device. The benefit in paper replacement is in reduced paperwork and related management, decreased errors, and faster time to billing. These aren’t benefits enjoyed at the point-of-service, and this is why technicians still find paperwork and administrative tasks to be the least favorite part of their day.

service council aging workforce

As organizations get more mature in using mobile tools to remove the obstacles from their technicians’ workdays, we will see a greater boost in productivity and workforce utilization. The removal of obstacles isn’t only tied to information access. It’s also tied to information entry. This is where virtual assistants, voice-driven applications, and natural language processing can drive further enhancements.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) has its challenges and its naysayers. Yet, we are moving to a world where most equipment will have sensors that can transmit usage and performance information to someone who is willing to work with that information. Many service organizations in our community are already leveraging connectivity-enabled data streams to increase the efficiency of their service businesses. This comes in several flavors:

  1. Elimination of primary dispatches through remote resolves or remote support
  2. Elimination of secondary dispatches through improved diagnosis procedures and information access
  3. Elimination of unplanned dispatches through predictive alerts that lead to remote resolves or the pooling of predictive work with other scheduled reactive work

In our recent work on IoT, most organizations are making headway on cases 1 and 2, and are beginning to compile the data and tools to become more predictive in their service delivery.

Knowledge Expanders

These solutions focus on accessing, organizing, and extending tribal know how and expertise to a wider service workforce. With the aid of these tools, not everyone in the field needs to be a subject matter expert, as they are able to easily tap into the knowledge of an existing expert or community of experts.

Knowledge Management

The use of term knowledge management is inappropriate if considered in its traditional form that references the existence of a knowledge base that contains technical information, service procedures, product documentation, and other structured data. These systems are still extremely relevant and valuable in extending service expertise. That said, a comprehensive approach to knowledge management considers the availability of a traditional knowledge base with the addition of:

  • On-demand training content management (in multiple formats)
  • Learning management
  • Enterprise collaboration

This approach accounts for technicians looking to learn by:

  • Connecting with content
  • Connecting with a community

This also requires considering the context in which a technician might be interested in learning. Training content could be extremely valuable prior to a service call, whereas product-focused knowledge could be necessary at the point-of-service.

Augmented Reality

In our recent research on augmented reality in service, more than 6 out of 10 companies are evaluating the technology for use in a field service or customer support environment. In most instances, companies are stepping into AR to increase the efficiency of their field service operations. With the aid of telepresence (or virtual presence), a field technician can get live support from an expert located centrally. A third of organizations in our research venture that more than 50% of incomplete field service tasks could be resolved with the aid of an AR-like solution.

service council aging workforce clicksoftware

The telepresence use case is just one opportunity for AR in service and support. In field service, AR has extensive implications in training delivery and dynamic content creation. It can also be used to drive remote support, where customers are able to work with technical support to appropriately resolve service issues without a field service dispatch. And ultimately, it could lead to a better issue diagnosis in order the ensure effective field service dispatch.

Those are the four major technology areas that I would like to highlight in terms of their impact on the aging workforce challenge in field service. There are many others, namely artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous vehicles. These tools will have a role to play in the workforce management designs of future service organizations. On some of the work that will be replaced by machines and artificial intelligence, it’s worth tracking the work done by McKinsey and Tableau Public.  An area that would be ranked fifth on my current list, given its near-term implications, is third-party workforce or contractor management. As organizations identify service tasks or customers that aren’t integral to the development of core business, the use of these workforce management portals and services will continue to remain strong.

I’ll be compiling the research and opinions from the last months’ worth of blogging into a document about the aging workforce crisis. This document is expected next week. You can email me directly at sd@servicecouncil.com or look for most of my research and work at www.servicecouncil.com.  If interested, do take a few moments to participate in our Augmented Reality research project and we’ll share the results with you.

Field Service Talent Shortage Part 3: What Can Be Done?

This is part 3 of our 4-part series on field service talent. Last week, we spoke about the opportunity for growth in an evolving and multi-generational workforce. You can find the piece here.

How can companies begin to tackle the aging workforce challenge? We asked that question to 100 service organizations last year. These are the same group that reported that they would be facing a talent shortage in the next 5-10 years.

Figure 1: Sustaining a Talented Workforce

 

I’d like to present the solutions in three buckets:

  • Discovering New Sources of Talent

  • Improving Connections in the Workforce

  • Driving the Capture and Retention of Knowledge

Technology would and should be a fourth bucket, but that deserves its own blog. I will tackle that next week.

New Sources of Labor

In part 1 of this series, we talked about the aging workforce issue having two pieces. The loss of knowledge from a retiring workforce and the poor flow of new talent into field service.

To bring in new talent at the recent graduate level, organizations are prioritizing:

  • Relationships with academic institutions to develop more technical talent
  • A review of apprenticeship programs
  • Development of training universities to engage students with hands-on experience. (Wonderful piece from TSC member Lee Company)

At the 2016 Smarter Services Symposium, hosted by The Service Council, Bryan Rathert from Cummins spoke of the work being done at Cummins’s TEC initiative. Brian shared best practices for organizations and institutions to develop a better connection in the battle for talent (his slides). He also showcased a wonderful video of the impact of TEC in Africa.

We’ve also seen organizations find success while evaluating alternate sources of experienced talent. Several organizations have started to work with war veterans, many of who have extensive technical and mechanical experience. Some organizations, like Philips Medical, recruit annual classes of veterans who are then placed in comprehensive training programs before being offered a rotation of responsibilities across the organization. Based on the rotation, veterans can then pick the most suitable position within the organization.

In tight labor markets, grabbing talent from competitive sources becomes challenging (not to mention the possible legal ramifications), but several organizations have had success in bringing on field service engineers from customer or partner organizations. These agents typically have extensive experience working with the organization’s products.

The final piece of the new talent puzzle comes from the increased use of part-time or third-party workforces for the completion of field service tasks. In research conducted by The Service Council in late 2016, 76% of organizations indicated that they were outsourcing some level of field service work. Most organizations believed that their reliance on outsourced or contingent labor would increase in the next five years (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Workforce of the Future?

 

Improving Connections in the Workforce

This is often the most overlooked piece of the three, especially as organizations focus on either end of the challenge. As seen from Figure 1, there is an impetus to focus on succession planning activities at the field technician level. In this, organizations are looking to build a pipeline of future talent to minimize the risk associated with talent loss. Very few field service organizations have a structured succession management discussion in place at the technician level.

Mentorship programs, where younger field engineers are paired with more experienced field engineers, can also be extremely powerful in:

  • Improving bi-directional knowledge transfer
  • Increasing engagement and camaraderie in the field service workforce

Most organizations only focus on knowledge transfer from experienced to inexperienced technicians, but there is a lot that younger workers can offer to older field technicians as well. As these technicians are asked to do more with technology, their younger counterparts can be an extremely vital source of guidance in reducing the stress associated with new tools and procedures.

Capturing and Retaining Knowledge

Service organizations continue to make major investments in knowledge management and training tools. In The Service Council’s 2017 survey of 30 senior service leaders, knowledge management was highlighted as a top 3 focus area.

There is no easy fix to knowledge management. There needs to be a dedicated focus on the capture, organization, and management of service knowledge. This is made more complex when you consider the creation of knowledge and information in multiple formats (document, video etc.). In global service organizations, the translation into multiple languages is another major challenge. We’re seeing an interesting intersection between training and knowledge programs, where training organizations are no longer just focused on delivering content at pre-established learning times. They are much more involved in the continuous development of the service workforce.

Live video recording and augmented reality tools are also being evaluated for the improved capture of service procedures, as conducted by experienced field service technicians. These procedures can then be re-used or repurposed for training or performance support. The Service Council is currently conducting a survey to evaluate the feasibility of these tools. And early returns suggest that the training value offered by these tools is a major interest drawing factor.

These tools also allow for organizations to move towards a centralized expert model. In this, an experienced field service technician could leverage live video or virtual presence technology to offer live support to multiple field service agents or trainees. These live sessions replace the need for the experienced technician to physically conduct a ride along. As a result, these tools amplify the reach of experienced field service technicians. The centralized expert model often appeals to experienced workers who might be looking to cut back on the travel associated with field service work. It’s recommended that this form of virtual training be paired with in-person, classroom, or practical training, so that experienced agents continue to see and feel a connection with the products and customers that they support.

Our final post on Field Service Matters will focus on:

March 29: The Role New Technology Will Play in Solving the Field Service Talent Crisis

If you’d like to chat with me about our research, or if you’d like to tell us how your organization is dealing with the talent crisis, please contact me at sd@servicecouncil.com. Most of my research and work can be found at www.servicecouncil.com.  Once again, do take a few moments to participate in our Augmented Reality research project and you’ll see some results in next week’s post. A live AR project is not required for participation.

Field Service Talent Shortage Part 2: The Opportunity in Changing Field Service Dynamics

This is part 2 of our 4-part series on field service talent. Last week, we spoke about the growing concern of a talent shortage in field service from an aging and retiring workforce. You can find the piece here.

In today’s discussion, we’ll focus on those worrisome Millennials, or is it Gen-Y ers? (Generations defined here) We’ve all seen the headlines, “Watch out for the Millennials.” As years go by, the term ‘millennials’ gets replaced by another generation. Right now the generation of choice is Gen Z. These newer generations are documented to be entitled, finicky, addicted to technology, and have no respect for social or leadership structures in organizations. What’s more, they have no loyalty to their organizations and move from role to another as it pleases them.

We’re beginning to see some of this rhetoric fade away (see fantastic work done by Amy Gallo). More and more organizations are realizing that they need to rethink how they appeal to a multi-generational workforce, now and in the future. The perceived differences between generations can be strengths and opportunities. The best organizations are those that are tapped into the needs and desires of their entire workforce and are creating growth opportunities for all. These growth opportunities might differ for different workers at various stages of their careers, but the support of these can still lead to a more diverse and fully productive workforce.

In 2013, the team at Ernst and Young polled 1,215 respondents belonging to different generational groups (Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y) to understand the perceived strengths and weaknesses of these groups. The expanded findings can be found here. To summarize, Boomers were seen to be/have:

  • Executive presence
  • Cost effective
  • Relationship builders

On the other end of the spectrum, Generation Y employees were seen to be/have:

  • Tech Savvy
  • Social Media Opportunists
  • Brand Ambassadors

The blend of these characteristics looks like a winning formula for an organization looking to differentiate itself with its quality of work and distinction of brand. To me, it also seems like there are numerous collaboration and mentorship opportunities across the groups given the general lack of overlap of characteristics.

Let’s talk about the younger/newer generation for a little bit. In The Service Council’s field technician-oriented research, we found the following to be true of those with less than 5 years of field service experience:

  • They were at ease with the technology demands of their work
  • They were interested in the career and learning opportunities provided at work
  • They weren’t as perturbed as others by the sales demands of field service work

In the figure below, we see the aspects of their day-to-day work that these younger workers enjoy the most. For the most part, these aren’t very different from those in other age groups.

From a technology point of view, these workers are positive towards emerging technology trends hitting the field service space. They see these tools in their consumer lives and quite often wonder why they can’t have the same level of access to tools and experiences as they do in their personal lives.

Therefore, field service organizations must focus on nurturing the following characteristics of a younger field service workforce.

  • They Are Digital/Technology Native: Younger workers demand the mobile and digital experiences in their day-to-day work and will have no time or patience for outdated paper-based tasks or information look-up protocols. As organizations focus on new technology initiatives to drive efficiency and business growth, they will find ready champions in their younger service workers.
  • They Are Eager to Grow: This is true of all generations, but younger workers take a great deal of interest in learning and development opportunities. They also take a keen interest in understanding innovative ways to deliver value to their customers and to the organization. It’s up to the organization to provide learning and development opportunities in various formats (classroom, online, self-help) while recognizing the contribution and development of these individuals.
  • The Like to Collaborate: The perception is that younger generation workers aren’t the best problem solvers, yet they are keen to collaborate with others to resolve issues. This is beneficial when it comes to the management of field service issues. It also creates a more connected field service workforce which can deliver engagement and safety benefits.
  • They Want to Promote Your Brand: The perception that younger workers aren’t brand loyal is false. When fully engaged, they are eager and anxious to promote their organization’s brand. This is especially true when the brand aligns with personal or social values that are prioritized by these workers. Brand enthusiasts become incredibly valuable in promoting the service organization to current and prospective customers. What’s more important is that brand enthusiasts drive new talent into your service organization.

Over the course of the coming weeks, we will begin to document and highlight some of steps and practices that can be relied on to get the most out of a multi-generational service workforce. At the end of the day, its key that organizations work to grow with the capabilities of a combined workforce as opposed to choosing to become paralyzed by the characteristics of one generational group.

Our next posts on Field Service Matters will focus on:

March 22: Prioritized Actions to Deal with an Aging Field Service Workforce

March 29: The Role New Technology Will Play in Solving the Field Service Talent Crisis

If you’d like to chat with me about our research or if you’d like to tell us how your organization is dealing with the talent crisis, please contact me at sd@servicecouncil.com. Most of my research and work can be found at www.servicecouncil.com.  

Field Service Talent Shortage Part 1: The Growing Concern

In field service, the emphasis has always been to get more from existing resources. Investments in technology have been built on the business case of increased productivity and utilization of existing field service resources. Process changes have been prioritized to ensure that field service engineers are getting the most out of their days. In addition to productivity or task completion, revenue growth from existing field service resources has also become a major focus point for field service organizations.

But what happens when talent and workforce levels begin to drop? Can field service organizations expect to drive the same levels of growth from a shrinking pool of workers? This is a major issue that is quickly becoming a strategic priority for field service organizations globally.

The Manpower Group conducts an annual talent shortage survey of over 42000 employers. In its 2016/2107 survey[1], 40% of employers reported having difficulties filling roles, the highest since 2007. For the fifth year in a row, skilled trade positions (electricians, carpenters, welders, etc.) were the hardest roles to fill, followed by IT staff and sales representatives. Rounding up the top 5 were engineers and technicians. In its previous talent shortage surveys, Manpower reported that more than one half of organizations were seeing a ‘high’ or ‘medium’ impact in their ability to meet client needs because of existing talent shortages. Talent shortages were also leading to reduced competitiveness, lower employee morale, and reduced innovation and capacity.

Three of the top five groups in Manpower’s survey can be linked to field service. The Service Council’s research, dedicated to the field of service management and field service, has also tracked the increasing challenge of talent shortages over the previous three years. In 2015, our field service talent research found that a third of organizations were already challenged by knowledge loss because of an aging workforce.

The field service industry is facing a talent shortage

At the end of 2015, 47% of organizations also reported being unable to fill open field service positions. In 2016, talent issues rose to the top of major challenges forecasted for the year. 46% of organizations polled at the beginning of 2016 highlighted talent and workforce issues as being a major focus area for their field service businesses in 2016.

field service organizations are investing in talent retention

Early polling of service leaders in 2017 highlights how talent continues to be a major concern. One-half (50%) of service business leaders polled by The Service Council indicate that workforce and talent shortage issues will have the most significant impact on their service businesses in 2017. These leaders identify talent management as their second most pressing challenge, behind changing customer expectations around service delivery.

In addition to those already saddled by talent challenges, another 38% of service organizations indicate that they will begin to feel the adverse impacts of a retiring field service workforce in the next 5-10 years. In certain industries, such as medical devices and services, 50% of organizations indicate that talent issues will become extremely critical in the next 5-10 years.

Focusing on the impact of an aging workforce is one thing, and there are many investments that organizations are beginning to evaluate to ensure that the tribal knowledge, inherent in the minds of the existing field workforce, remains within the walls of the field service organization. Solving for knowledge loss is only part of the solution. This is because most service organizations are struggling to deal with the paucity of new available talent for future field service work.

In Manpower’s 2015 and 2016 talent shortage surveys the top factors leading to poor job-fill rates were:

  • Lack of available applicants
  • Lack of technical competencies (hard skills)

Only 13-14% of organizations reported that the workforce’s demand for higher pay was a major factor in being unable to assemble the right talent. In our own work, we’ve seen several organizations struggle with the development of a future talent pool from their traditional talent sources. Enrollment in vocational and technical schools has remained subdued leading to an increased reliance on alternative sources of talent.

So how do organizations begin to solve this talent crisis? There’s no silver bullet as the solution to such a comprehensive problem requires a comprehensive review of:

Over the next 4 weeks, The Service Council will share insight on how organizations are preparing to deal with their looming talent challenges. In addition to this post, we will publish content on the following areas in the coming weeks:

March 16: The Opportunity in Changing Field Service Workforce Dynamics

March 23: Prioritized Actions to Deal with an Aging Field Service Workforce

March 30: The Role New Technology Will Play in Solving the Field Service Talent Crisis

At the end of the month, we will publish a summary report detailing the steps taken by organizations to ensure a sustainable talent pool in field service management. The information in this report will be developed from interviews and surveys conducted by The Service Council within its overall service talent and leadership communities. If interested in accessing a copy of this report, please follow our posts on Field Service Matters or contact me at sd@servicecouncil.com

[1] ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage Survey 2016-2017, November 2016

Field Service Technology Landscape: From Bots to Augmented Reality

This is not meant to be a “Pokémon Go” for business piece. Given the great success of Pokémon Go as an Augmented Reality game there are plenty of articles that tout how Pokémon will usher the next wave of AR into the enterprise. I think it will create a greater level of familiarity with the concept of AR, and the concept of gamification, which in turn will impact the use of these technologies in the enterprise. In my opinion, the two most interesting articles on the phenomenon to date are:

In thinking about the landscape of technologies that can be extremely impactful in the field of field service, I wanted to isolate the tools that will actually be used by field service agents. In this, I will stay away from the broader discussion on the Internet of Things or Big Data, as I factor these to be more of the behind-the-scenes tools that enable better field service performance.

Field service agents, as a group, aren’t necessarily pro-technology or anti-technology. They like technology when it helps remove obstacles and allows them to get work done. In areas where technology serves to become the obstacle it was designed to eliminate, field service agents become quite anti-technology. In addition, more seasoned field service agents have a lower tolerance for technology’s flaws. In understanding where technology can have the most immediate impact on field service performance its useful to look at the barriers that come in the way of field service agents getting their work done.

When The Service Council directly polled field service agents to understand the most frustrating parts of their day-to-day routine, the following were their responses:

What do field service professionals dislike most?
Credit: The Service Council

It’s quite evident that solutions that eliminate or reduce non-productive tasks, and those that simplify the search for information are ones that can have the most significant impact. In looking into the crystal ball, here are a few tools that might come into consideration over the coming years (Note: These aren’t listed in order of impact, they are intended to build on one another).

Messaging Apps

Both Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp have crossed the 1b user mark. Enterprise messaging and collaboration platforms like Slack and HipChat boast millions of daily users. The general trend is for employees to move away from email to messaging for communication and collaboration. In customer support, a number of organizations are evaluating the use of messaging to engage with and support their customers. This goes beyond the basic notification and rebooking services available via SMS. In field service, messaging can be quite useful especially in one-to-one communication between field agents or between dispatchers and field workers, and one-to-many announcements from one person to a group of field service agents. Messaging is quicker, simpler, and more mobile-friendly when compared to email. Messages can also be tagged and linked to specific accounts or product areas in order to allow for appropriate archiving. I also believe that messaging can play an essential role in creating a sense of community among dispersed field service agents, which is vital for employee morale, employee retention, and employee well being. While it is true to assume that messaging is a demographic play for a younger workforce, research from the Pew Research Center finds that older demographics are also becoming more familiar with the use of popular messaging apps.

Bots and Virtual Assistants

The messaging section above focuses on human-to-human communication and collaboration. We are still in the early days of this. Yet, we could also extend queries and messages to bots for customer service. The development of bots for human interaction was a big theme for developer conferences hosted by Facebook and Microsoft in 2016. Queries to bots could originate from anyone. A field service agent could submit a query via messaging to a bot in the back-end especially around the search for information. As the bot becomes more intelligent based on the mass history of queries and knowledge, the results returned could be quite powerful in solving one of the major challenges for field service agents.

Taking the Bot idea one step further is to think about a system where field service agents don’t have to create a new query tied to a field service issue. A system on the back-end could factor in location, time, and other parameters to automatically push information and notifications to that field service agent. Currently, virtual assistants like Google Now tell us when we need to leave for work in order to beat the traffic. Field service assistants could help agents beat traffic, rebook appointments, communicate with customers, and also pull up necessary information, given the context in which the field service agent is working.

Voice and Natural Language Processing

The biggest issue with virtual assistants (Siri, Cortana etc.) is that they are poor at processing and understanding voice commands. Natural Language Processing has come a long way and these assistants will only get better with future updates. Most users of Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, are quite positive on its language processing capabilities. In field service, voice queries directed at a virtual assistant can be extremely useful in assisting field service agents search for relevant information, proceed to the next step of a service workflow, and much more. This can become even more valuable in hands-free work environments, such as in the field service van or on top of utility pole. As NLP improves, there will be the need to factor in background noise and distractions to truly make voice computing an effective tool for field service work. (Note: Elon Musk received a lot of press for a recent interview when he talked about humanity currently living in a simulation. What didn’t receive as much press is his talk about the input-output constraint. While his neural lace proposal is perhaps too advanced for this discussion, his point regarding the limited output capacity is extremely well made. It’s a worthy listen)

Video Collaboration to Augmented Reality

A lot of things get bucketed into augmented reality. The way I look at it, there are three stages of remote collaboration that build up to augmented realty

Stage 1: Two-way video collaboration – Field agent connects with back-end expert to show him/her what is being seen. The expert provides vocal commands.

Stage 2: Remote assistance – Similar to above, but expert can make gestures and more to assist field agent.

Stage 3: Augmented procedures – Instead of a remote expert providing guidance, service procedures are augmented on a field service agent’s screen to support resolution.

Stage 4: Augmented information – The first few three stages are very procedural. Stage 4 highlights how field service agents could view real-time asset performance, dashboards, and procedures, just by pointing their mobile device or by looking at the asset to be serviced.

The major challenge with augmented reality, as in the case of the tools above, is that it generally requires connectivity to work. The field service agents that need this information the most are likely to be those that work in extremely remote environments where connectivity is poor. Some of this can be solved by loading information on the mobile device, as is often done with knowledge articles, but that will not enable Stages 1,2, and 4 above.

Virtual Reality also presents an interesting solution for the field service enterprise. Based on early testing (see picture) and interviews, the VR experience is still clunky. That said, given the advancements that have already been made over the previous years and the speed at which future advancements are coming, the technology will not be a barrier. Organizations that are evaluating VR for their field service teams are doing so with an eye on training environments. With the aid of VR, technicians could work collaboratively on a virtual piece of equipment or in a virtual environment. VR would also enable a better collaboration between service and product design in ensuring that designed products consider the perspective of serviceability and new services prior to actual manufacture.

That’s the list. Once again, each one of these technology areas builds on the previous. The list also takes in the perspective of a field worker actively seeking information and assistance in his or her day-to-day tasks. That’s my get out of jail free card in not mentioning 3D printing and other tools that can also be useful.

As mentioned earlier, our research has found that most field service agents are open to new technology if it improves their day-to-day and eliminates major hurdles. This simple statement doesn’t look to minimize the role of change management. That said, newer service workers are coming in with a greater familiarity of these technologies thanks to the likes of Pokémon Go, Alexa, and more. These newer workers might even come in with the expectation of these tools being part of their day-to-day lives.

The perceived impact of new technologies on field service
Credit: The Service Council