[Compos Mentis][March 31, 2006] One of the great dumb philosophy questions is, If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? The obvious answer is: “Of course it does. What a stupid question. Next you’re going to ask about that clapping thing.” But philosophy isn’t about the obvious; philosophy is about the devious. The answer, arrived at after much debate (and much drinking) seems to be “no”: Sound is only sound if a person hears it, claim the tipsy pundits.

Well, okay.

If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, but there’s a tape player recording the event, is there sound? A human hasn’t heard it ... yet. Is it sound when the tape is played? What if the tape is never played? What if it’s played backward? What if the person or persons listening are too drunk to pay attention? Does the mere presence of a human at the time of compression and rarefaction denote sound, or do the audio images have to impinge themselves on a human consciousness?” 1


Let’s step out of the path of actual or philosophical falling trees for a minute and ask a somewhat related question. If an AMR system produces a clear benefit to utility customers, but the utility will not acknowledge that benefit or attach any value to it, then is it a benefit at all? Hey, does this sound like a vaguely familiar question? It should.

If you have wrestled with the justification for an AMR system, slaving over a complex business case, then you know what I mean. Sure, many elements of that justification are straightforward, even easy. Items such as saved labour cost, ability to do off-cycle reads remotely, virtual disconnect, improved accuracy, etc. are readily listed. An economic benefit can be attached to each one.

But what about ‘benefits’ that utilities say have no economic value? For example, customer recognition that the utility is adopting new technology to do its job better; customer appreciation that bills are more accurate; improved customer satisfaction by eliminating estimated readings; customer comfort from avoiding the need for a stranger to visit his property; customer convenience due to the ability to offer customer-selectable bill dates; and more. These attributes of an AMR system do improve the life of the customer and the customer’s regard for his utility.


But since they are not quantified, they are not ‘real’ in the utility’s AMR business case. In almost any other industry the supplier pays great attention to these elements of the consumer’s whole satisfaction with the product, and spends handsomely to generate and maintain that consumer’s positive experience. But not utilities! Why? Is this attitude a hangover of the monopoly mentality? You know: "Why worry about customer satisfaction when the customer has nowhere else to go?"

To look at the results of a business case – to recognise as meaningful only the economic benefits that can be defined in terms of the utility’s bank account – is incredibly myopic. As with the sound of the falling tree, are the benefits that cannot be quantified real benefits? Say No at your peril, my Neanderthal friend. Say yes, say YES, and you must attribute value to them. Go ahead, attribute value, even arbitrary value. But some value. You will be right to do so.


Enlightened utility top management realises that the economic justification of AMR captures only a part of the true array of benefits. Enlightened utility management will seek to emulate every other consumer service industry where enormous value is placed on customer satisfaction.

We hear too often of utilities that say their business case for AMR was "right on the edge." So the utility chose not to proceed. What’s that? To them I say, "Wake up! Breathe! Check your pulse! Join the 21st century! Serve your customers! Do your job!" Any economic business case that is "right on the edge" is a hands-down winner if there is even the vaguest recognition of the many non-economic benefits.

Some utilities will not buy this argument. These recalcitrant utilities stand in the path of a very large tree, falling in their direction, ever so silently.

1The first three paragraphs are liberally taken from “Speculative Speculation” by David E. Romm

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This column is to create a forum for ideas, passions and perspectives on our industry that are controversial, provocative and energising. The views expressed here may be unpopular, politically incorrect, heretical or simply humorous. The views expressed may be ideas that all of us have had but didn't care (or dare) to articulate. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone, but are probably shared by many who have yet to say so.