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Energy sector wrestles with youth

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As the older generation of trained energy specialists approach retirement age, firms must look at attracting younger replacements. But, says MARTIN RICHARDS, Senior Director for Energy Industry Solutions, OpenText, that is not so easy with more enticing companies looking for the same talent.

The ‘Great Crew Change’ taking place in today’s energy sector creates numerous challenges. As an older generation of highly trained specialists approaches retirement age en masse, energy firms must attract and train large numbers of talented young replacements. That’s not easy when ‘hotter’ companies such as Facebook, Google and Uber want to recruit the same talent.

Forty years ago, running a nuclear power plant or exploring for oil and gas offered high-tech career appeal to many young engineers and PhDs. Today’s bright new graduates, though, have other cutting-edge options. So what’s an energy company to do when it faces the loss of many decades’ worth of knowledge and experience all at once?

One solution – digitalization – might not seem obvious at first. But by updating and digitalizing how they manage, store and share information, energy companies can preserve the knowledge of soon-to-be retirees and improve their ability to recruit a new generation of skilled employees. At the same time, such transformation can also help those organizations become more efficient, effective and ready for future change.

New ideas about data

While every business in the energy industry is unique, many have long relied on old-fashioned, paper-based documentation. In quite a few companies, this information is also distributed across various silos, with different teams or departments jealously guarding ‘their’ information from other groups. Such attitudes, however, are alien to today’s up-and-coming generation of professionals.

One story I heard recently clearly illustrates this divide: A senior engineer in his 50s recounted discussing a technical problem with a much younger co-worker, whose response was to promptly go to WhatsApp to ask former classmates for help. Within minutes, one of his friends had come back with an answer to the problem.

This is a far cry from how many energy companies are used to managing information. Up until recently, for instance, many firms employed teams of document controllers who were in charge of managing requests for records. If you needed a printed report or maintenance guide, you would turn over a written request to one of these controllers, who would then disappear into a maze of filing cabinets to retrieve the document.

That’s hardly an efficient system for a mobile, digital age, is it? So bringing in a new generation of employees who grew up with iPads, smartphones, tablets and WiFi will require companies to adopt new ways of working as well.

Preserving knowledge digitally

As they move into new digital working practices, energy firms must also work to preserve the knowledge of older employees approaching retirement. This means digitalizing large volumes of information from a wide array of sources – paper reports, books, memos, handwritten notes and more – and then bringing order to that information so it can be more easily searched, shared and kept up to date.

Technology can help with much of this. For example, advanced scanning devices and character recognition software can quickly and efficiently transform printed materials into digital data. Sometimes, though, hands-on human help is also needed.

Consider one company OpenText worked with that had acquired an oil platform from a large energy firm selling off aging assets. Before taking over, the company received all of the documentation it needed to operate the platform… in the form of 16 pallets of paper delivered to its parking lot. The business ended up having to employ a team of people from the original energy firm who understood how to make sense of those records.

Preserving old knowledge for a new digital era can be even more challenging in the nuclear energy sector, which has traditionally disaggregated critical information into multiple documents for security purposes. In many cases, one document won’t make sense unless it is read alongside several other related documents. It’s a system the older generation understands that won’t make sense to younger incoming employees.

Transformation in action

So how does a company make the transition from paper to digital?

OpenText has found the process is best managed in four stages. First, content must be brought under control. This means bringing information into a single, digital repository and eliminating silos. Along the way, files and metadata are standardized so content will be searchable, sharable and usable in a variety of formats.

The next step involves optimizing the newly digital content for accessibility. This requires adding advanced search capabilities, as well as security controls for sensitive documents, version control and support for mobile.

After that, additional changes are made to build in processes for content reviews, approvals and audit trails. This stage also involves enabling automatic notifications to be distributed whenever information is revised or updated.

Finally, in the last stage of transformation, content is integrated with other systems for operations, maintenance, project management and more. This process, for instance, could enable an employee reading an SAP work order on an iPad to also receive location-based information about where a particular piece of equipment is located and get temperature data to know whether the equipment in question is cool enough to be safely touched.

For one nuclear power provider that OpenText has worked with, such a staged transformation enabled the company to add built-in support for industry-standard regulatory compliance, making information management easier and more efficient for thousands of employees.

Building for the future

In addition to the dramatic generational shift in their workforces, many companies in the energy sector today are also confronting the need to replace aging infrastructure. Here, again, the right technology can help them accomplish this faster, more efficiently and more cost-effectively.

For example, one mining company in South America recently faced a difficult challenge: how to quickly bring online several new mines to replace those that were nearing depletion. It hadn’t developed a new mine in 20 years or so, which meant all of those past development processes had been paper-based and not designed for today’s needs and modern efficiency. To ensure faster results this time around, the company engaged OpenText to help it deploy a new system that provided hundreds of suppliers with centralized, online access to project information. By enabling orders, changes and other information to be managed digitally, this system allowed the company to reduce errors, improve communication and speed up every stage of new mine development.

Improvements like these not only help businesses move faster and become more efficient – they also make them more attractive to young employees who expect to work this way. Look, for example, at the utility sector, which is undergoing rapid change with the introduction of things like smart meters, rooftop solar and net metering. To enable their customers to manage such new services, utility companies are deploying new information technologies and advanced capabilities such as smart mobile apps and Big Data analytics. This will also help them recruit new generations of professionals to take over when the older generations hit retirement.

Conclusion

Managing change is always challenging and when changes are large and sweeping, there are plenty of opportunities to fall down and fail to meet those challenges. That’s especially the case in the energy sector, which has traditionally had a reputation of being resistant to change. Energy companies that are serious about successfully navigating the Great Crew Change will need to embrace new technologies and new processes, ideally with help from experienced partners who know how to manage and deliver transformation.

Those that can reinvent themselves in this way will be better positioned to deal with future challenges too. We’re already seeing new kinds of energy businesses emerging – smaller, more nimble businesses that are cloud-based digital natives from Day One. Legacy companies will have to adopt similar ways of thinking, working and managing information if they wish to remain competitive in the years ahead.

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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