OPINION

The PG&E Disaster and the Case for Digitizing Physical Documents

The IT industry purely loves digital information and with good reason. Creating, storing and archiving documents consisting of 1’s and 0’s provides the foundation for thousands of business computing solutions and billions of dollars in annual sales.

While the gospel of the “all-digital enterprise” inspires many proselytizers and true believers, companies in the real world tend to utilize both digital and physical documents and records. However, that process can result in an uneasy balancing act with sometimes serious repercussions.

Want an extreme worst-case example? Look no further than Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the utility company that provides electric and natural gas services to most of Northern and Central California.

On September 9, 2010, a PG&E natural gas transmission pipeline in San Bruno ruptured and exploded into a devastating fire, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. Not surprisingly, this tragic loss of life and property led to multiple investigations by PG&E, local authorities, insurance carriers and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

Those efforts intensified when it was discovered that though the company’s records described the pipeline as seamless, investigators found multiple poorly welded seams that they believed might have caused or contributed to the rupture and blast. Complicating matters further, PG&E had never conducted inspections on the line that were capable of discovering bad welds.

Paper Chase

As a result, in October 2010, the CPUC ordered PG&E to produce records detailing the history, construction, performance and condition not just of the San Bruno pipeline but of its entire gas transmission infrastructure by March 15, 2011.

One might think that complying with such a sizable order wouldn’t be that a big deal for a modern utility company driving nearly US$14 billion in annual revenues. One might think that, but one would be seriously wrong.

PG&E’s efforts to digitize its records and archives reportedly have been troubled for years. So, meeting the CPUC’s order resulted in a paper chase of monumental size. A preliminary study suggested that the company’s pipeline archive included around 1.2 million physical documents, including inspection records, studies and reports.

PG&E rented San Francisco’s Cow Palace, a cavernous venue originally designed to host livestock shows and rodeos, and commenced hand searching nearly 100,000 file boxes of paper records.

The sheer impact of that many physical file boxes is hard to grasp, so what does it mean in practical terms? The boxes — which are stored in warehouses near the Cow Palace — are being transported by forklifts carrying 30 boxes on each pallet, according to reports. That works out to about 3,300 pallets total, or enough to cover most all of an NFL football field in file boxes to a depth of about four feet.

Things got even stickier when an initial investigation found thousands of documents missing. That prompted some curious efforts, including PG&E contacting thousands of former employees to ask if they’d ever “happened to take home” materials relevant to the investigation for work or study.

Unable to meet the March 15 deadline, the company petitioned the CPUC for an extension, saying that it would need at least through the end of 2011 to comply.

That prompted outcries from victims of the San Bruno disaster who were trying to get on with their lives, as well as utility watchdog groups, several of which suggested PG&E deserved to be fined up to $1 million per day it was out of compliance.

Not surprisingly, the CPUC’s proposed decision granting the extension the company requested, fining PG&E $3 million and threatening an additional $3 million fine if it failed to comply with the new deadline, left many incensed by what they considered a sweetheart deal.

The office of California’s attorney general voiced serious displeasure, both at the size of the fine and the lack of oversight the proposed ruling offered regulators. While the CPUC is scheduled to vote on the proposal by April 11, virtually any result is likely to face close scrutiny and possible challenges. Resolution of investigations and litigation related to the San Bruno explosion and fire are still years and at least tens of millions of dollars away.

EMC’s Captiva 6.5

An unusual situation? To be sure, but primarily in degree. Virtually every private and public sector organization maintains a delicate balance between managing physical and digital records, between supporting traditional and technological business processes.

Sometimes it takes an event like the San Bruno disaster to demonstrate just how far out of whack that relationship has become, but sometimes it takes much less.

So, can any IT solutions help companies effectively address and hopefully avoid such circumstances? Actually, yes, including EMC’s Captiva 6.5, the latest update of the company’s intelligent enterprise capture solution. Captiva 6.5 is designed to transform paper documents, faxes and other content into digital data used by business applications and IT processes. EMC benchmark testing found that a single Captiva 6.5 server can process more than 10 million images per day.

New customization, integration and management options notably simplify system deployment and reduce the time it takes for companies to begin using Captiva 6.5. In addition, the solution’s new Production Auto Learning feature enables systems to automatically classify and extract important business information from documents as they are being scanned, notably accelerating the capture processes for invoices, loan documents, policy claims, and many other document types.

EMC’s Captiva 6.5 is obviously aimed at global enterprises, but those are the organizations that have the greatest need for comprehensive intelligent capture solutions. They are also likely to be most aware of the potential costs they face — in legal fees and fines, wasted time and revenues and lost confidence and trust among customers and partners — should the unthinkable ever occur.

Taking such circumstances into consideration, and noting the painful ongoing lessons of PG&E’s San Bruno disaster, the potential return on wisely, proactively investing in a solution like EMC’s Captiva 6.5 is almost incalculable.

Charles King

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace. Though Pund-IT provides consulting and other services to technology vendors, the opinions expressed in this commentary are King's alone.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories

Technewsworld Channels

OPINION

How Not To Do CX, Lenovo Style

Customer Experience CX

Sometimes the world of smart technology innovations collides with the planet of dumb customer service provisions. That collision usually does not bode well for the customer.

In my case, that scenario is particularly true. I bought Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet 5 for an attractive price from a major national electronics store. In hindsight, that was a purchase I wish I could undo.

The Duet 5 is regarded in numerous reliable reviews as the best overall ChromeOS tablet/detachable computer available this year. Its larger screen and detachable full-size keyboard make a usable and fun tablet experience not available with pure Android devices.

For me, that accolade falls far short of reaching that mark. In fact, if your primary need for a Chromebook is to run Linux apps, think again about not buying Lenovo’s Duet 5. You might get a unit like mine that does not do Linux even though it is supposed to work. That failure is not considered a valid claim under Lenovo’s warranty.

I have become quite fond of Chromebooks. ChromeOS devices supplement my home office cadre of Linux computers. They link to my Android phone and its apps. I can run the same productivity apps and access their data directly on the Chromebook.

What fed my attraction to the Duet 5 is its logical follow-up to the very popular 10.1″ original Duet I bought a few years ago. The Duet line has a detachable keyboard and is a stand-alone ChromeOS tablet.

Putting want versus need aside, I debated the prospect of more productivity and convenience with a bigger screen at 400 nits, larger keyboard, and 8GB of RAM. I knew the manufacturer and the retail store as well as the product line. Or so I thought.

What could go wrong? Three things: a failed product, no support, and a warranty that also did not work!

Maybe One Too Many

The last thing I needed to buy was yet another Chromebook. Over the last few years, I have used four or five models from HP, Lenovo, and Asus.

The Duet 5 seemed to check all the boxes. As it turned out, the check mark fell out of the box for reliable tech support and customer service.

Nope, I could not return the computer. By the time I discovered its defective nature the undo window had closed.

I suppose this incident will nudge me to buy expensive add-on store warranties for less expensive electronic devices. Adding insult to injury, Lenovo tech support said the malfunction was “beyond the scope of the manufacturer’s one-year warranty.”

A final correspondence from Lenovo’s tech support told me that if I shipped the device to its repair facility, all the technicians would do is reset the unit to its original OS status and remove Linux.

Heck, I had already done the same thing twice.

Lenovo Buyers Beware

This account is not intended to be a product review. Rather, it tells what happens when corporate arrogance destroys the customer experience.

I usually write about business technology issues and open-source developments impacting the Linux OS. My reporting beat overlaps with e-commerce and customer relationship management (CRM) issues.

As a tech writer and product reviewer, I am used to manufacturers sending me top-of-their-line products in hopes of showing off their best wares. Marketing marvels often offer high-end configurations to curry consumers’ attention. They go out of their way to make sure the reviewer is fully satisfied.

Too bad that mentality does not always exist when lowly consumers are on the receiving end. But I was not using a loaner unit I would send back anyway, satisfied or not. I bought this model with no plans to review it. I just wanted to use it.

My personal experience hardened my resolve to not buy a Lenovo product going forward. Not because of a bad product encounter. Lenovo lost my customer loyalty because of shoddy customer service and no dedication to resolving my issue with a malfunctioning computer that they built.

The Gory Details

According to Lenovo’s ill-conceived logic, the warranty on Chromebooks does not cover user modifications. Since I activated the Linux partition, ran into a problem, removed the partition, and reinstalled Linux apps not there when I bought it, I was guilty of modifying the device.

To clarify, all Chromebooks require the user to turn on the Linux partition and install Linux apps. That is the same process for using Android apps on Chromebooks.

Chromebooks are built to run the ChromeOS and optionally to run in separate built-in containers Android and Linux software. Google certifies the hardware to ensure the software works.

The ChromeOS similarly enables users to access websites in a browser environment. An added option lets users access those web destinations to run application services within tabbed browser windows or as progressive web apps (PWAs) in their own isolated windows.

That is what Chromebooks are designed to do on any manufacturer’s hardware. Turning these built-in features on/off should not be construed as “modifying” the device.

Tech Support Hell

A few weeks after receiving the Duet 5, I experienced only an intermittent screen flickering issue. That cleared up after a system update. No worries. No concerns.

At that point I turned on the Linux partition and installed the same Linux apps that I use on my other lesser-endowed Chromebooks. Those devices worked fine with the same apps installed.

But the Lenovo Duet 5 froze after loading the Linux apps and running for a few minutes. Glitchy installations happen. So I did what is standard troubleshooting. I reset the ChromeOS to its original status. I then set up the Linux partition and sized it well beyond the Google-recommended minimum size.

Problem NOT solved. So I wiped the Linux partition again. This time, I installed a single Linux app one at a time looking for the culprit throwing the others out of whack. Every Linux app in isolation froze.

Lenovo tech support declined to investigate or test the hardware. The agents suggested finding an affiliated tech center to pursue a solution.

Stuck With No Options

I gladly would have done that. But the nearest such Lenovo repair center was across state lines some 150 miles away.

I reached out to the Google Chromebook support community for an alternative solution. A support person there had me run the “df command” in a Linux terminal to determine the physical health of the partition.

The readout from that diagnostic confirmed the device has a valid and working Linux container. That partially settled the question about the hardware. It did not, however, identify what other hardware issues might be involved.

The Google support forum tech then suggested I look for one or more dud packages by following the procedure outlined above. But, of course, I already did that several times.

Lousy Lessons Learned

If you plan to buy a Chromebook just to have easy access to selected Linux apps, seriously consider my experience. Maybe look elsewhere instead of the Duet 5. Numerous Chromebook alternatives exist.

Who knows? Maybe the Linux apps will work fine for you on your Duet 5. As I said, I have not had this situation on any other Chromebook product I use.

No doubt my experience was a gross anomaly. The aggravating part in all of this is that I will never know the cause.

But if you buy a Duet 5 from a retail outlet instead of directly from the manufacturer, be sure to confirm how that store honors the warranty. You now know how Lenovo honors its warranty.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.
Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories
More by Jack M. Germain
More in Tech Blog

Accent Altering Voice Tech Aims To Replace Frustration With Communication

frustrated customer calling customer service

Having trouble understanding that person at the end of the support line you’ve called to get some customer service? A Silicon Valley company wants to make those kinds of problems a thing of the past.

The company, Sanas, makes software that uses artificial intelligence to remove the accents in the speech of non-native, or even native, English speakers and output a more standard version of the language. “The program does phonetic-based speech synthesis in real-time,” one of the firm’s founders, Sharath Keshava Narayana, told TechNewsWorld.

In addition, the voice characteristics remain the same even after the accent is removed. The voice output by the software sounds the same as the voice input, only the accent has been removed so, for example, the sex of the speaker is preserved.

“What we’re doing is allowing agents to maintain their identity, maintain their accents, without the need to change it,” said Sanas CEO Maxim Serebryakov.

“The call center market is enormous. It’s 4% of India’s GDP, 14% of the Philippine’s GDP,” he told TechNewsWorld. “We’re not talking about a few thousand people getting discriminated against on a daily basis because of their cultural identity. We’re talking about millions and millions of people that get treated differently because of the way they sound.”

“The concept is sound. If they can make it work, it’s a big deal,” observed Jack E. Gold, founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, an IT advisory company in Northborough, Mass.

“It can make companies more efficient and more effective and more responsive to consumers,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Talking Local

Gold explained that locals tend to better understand local dialects and associate with them better. “Even talking to someone with a heavy Southern accent sometimes gives me pause,” said the Massachusetts resident. “It affects the effectiveness of the call center if you can be much more like me.”

“Many call center workers are based overseas and customers could easily have trouble understanding what they’re saying in the case of strong accents,” John Harmon, a senior analyst with Coresight Research, a global advisory and research firm specializing in retail and technology, told TechNewsWorld.

“But the same could be true even for regional U.S. accents,” he added.

However, Taylor Goucher, COO of Connext Global Solutions, an outsourcing company in Honolulu, discounted accents as a source of customer frustration.

“It is well known that companies outsource call center support to different countries and rural parts of the United States,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The larger issue is the right selection of employees for the position and the training and processes that are in place to make them successful.”

Customer Perceptions

Harmon noted that consumers can have a negative reaction when they encounter a support person with a foreign accent at the other end of a support line. “A caller could feel that a company is not taking customer support seriously because it’s finding a cheaper solution by outsourcing service to an overseas call center,” he said.

“Also,” he added, “some customers might feel that someone overseas might be less able to help them.”

Goucher cited a study taken by Zendesk in 2011 that showed customer satisfaction dropping from 79% to 58% when a call center was moved outside the United States. “Everyone that I know has likely had a poor customer experience at some point in their lives with an agent that they couldn’t understand,” he observed.

He noted that the biggest problem with bad customer experience is the lack of support systems, training, and management oversight in the call center.

“Frequently we see companies move call centers offshore just to have the phone answered.” he said. “In customer service, answering the phone isn’t the most important part, it’s what happens after.”

“Agents, accent or no accent, will be able to provide winning customer experiences if they are the right person for the role, have the right training, and have the right tools to solve customer problems,” he added. “Saying the accent is the problem is an easy out.”

Bias Against Accents

When a customer support person doesn’t have the tools to solve a problem, it can be a huge frustration to a customer, Gold observed. “If I call somebody, I want my problem solved, and I don’t want to go through 88 steps to get there,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me because I just spent a whole bunch of money with your company.”

“Anything that can be done to get over that hump faster has multiple benefits,” he continued. “From the consumer perspective, there’s the benefit of not pissing me off. In addition, if I can get through faster, it means the service person can spend less time with me and can handle more calls. And if I can hone in on the problem better, I won’t have to call again about it.”

Regardless of whether a customer support person has the tools they need to provide top-notch service, accents can influence a caller’s response to the person at the other end of a phone line.

“A customer could become upset at having to decode a foreign accent,” Harmon said. “There is also the stereotype that some U.S. accents sound uneducated, and a customer could feel like that the service provider is getting by with cheaper support.”

“In some cases, I think the biggest pre-existing bias is that if the agent has an accent, they aren’t going to be able to solve my problem,” Goucher added.

Choice for Voice

Serebryakov noted that one of the goals of Sanas is to provide people with choice when it comes to their voice. “When we post photos on Instagram, we can use filters to represent ourselves however we want to,” he explained. “But you don’t have a similar medium for voice. Our mission at Sanas is to provide that kind of choice.”

Although Sanas has initially targeted call centers for its technology, there are other areas that hold potential for it.

“One of the biggest uses we see for the technology is in enterprise communication,” Narayana said. “We got a call from Samsung saying they’ve got 70,000 engineers in Korea who interact with engineers in the U.S., and they don’t talk at team meetings because they’re scared how they’ll be interpreted. That’s the next use case we want to solve.”

The technology also has potential in gaming, health care, telemedicine, and education, he added.

Sanas on June 22 announced a $32 million Series A, boasting the largest Series A round in history for a speech technology company.

John P. Mello Jr.

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories
More by John P. Mello Jr.
More in Emerging Tech