Instructional Design Opportunities In Energy Generation, Transmission & Distribution


Electrical Transmission & Distribution Instructional Design Image

Dr. Tom Baer is an instructional designer with Puget Sound Energy (PSE) in the Seattle, WA area.

Faced with changes in the industry, PSE has recently doubled-down on their investment in instructional design and training at their organization. Tom was hired to perform instructional design work as part of that increased emphasis on instructional design at PSE, and he was nice enough to take some time and explain some of the instructional design opportunities in this industry.

We’ve got a recording of the discussion with Tom immediately below. And if you’d prefer to read, we’ve got a transcript below that.

We’d like to thank both Tom and Puget Sound Energy for their contributions to this discussion and tip our hats to them on their hard work. Hopefully, we’ll touch base with them again at some future point for an additional conversation (fingers crossed).

Instructional Design Opportunities in Energy Generation, Transmission & Distribution

Convergence Training:

Hey everybody, and welcome. This is Jeff Dalto of Convergence Training and Vector Solutions back with one of our semi-regular podcast/audiocast/webcast series.

Today, we’re excited for a couple of reasons.

One, we’re talking to somebody from an industry that I haven’t spoken with a lot. This is the electric utilities industry. And it’s Tom Baer. Tom is a senior instructional designer with Puget Sound Energy, and he’s in their Electric Operations Training Unit. So that’s exciting in general, we’re going to be talking to Tom about training challenges in his industry.

I’m also personally excited because Tom’s a personal friend. We’ve worked together a couple of times when we were younger in different capacities, but always in the learning and development field.

So I think you guys will enjoy this. And with that, let me say hi to Tom, Tom, how you doing today?

Dr. Tom Baer:

Doing good. How are you, Jeff?

Introducing Tom and His Instructional Design Role in Electrical Transmission & Distribution

Convergence Training:

I’m great. Thanks so much for agreeing to join us and talk to us about your job and training there at your organization.

Before we jump in, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your workplace and your job role?

Dr. Tom Baer:

Yeah, so I’ve been an instructional designer for about 20 years, sometimes longer than I want to admit. And when I got started in instructional design was actually when you and I were working together at this place called Videodiscovery.

Convergence Training:

Educational laserdiscs for science education.

Dr. Tom Baer:

Exactly. Yeah, the laserdisc days. And back then there was this new thing called CD-ROMs.

Convergence Training:

And rumors of something they called the internet.

A Quick (and Helpful) Technical Introduction to Electrical Transmission & Distribution

Dr. Tom Baer:

Yes, exactly.

And so let’s see, I’ve done instructional design across the broad range of situations. You know, Videodiscovery, at least the projects I worked on, were for middle school age kids. I’ve done stuff for higher-education adult on-the job-training like I’m doing now, I’ve done some of that before, some stuff in the medical field, stuff in the child welfare system. So all sorts of things. And I’ve always felt very lucky to be able to work with subject matter experts and learn many different fields.

I started my current job about five months ago, at an electric utility that provides electricity to over 1 million households. And this is actually the largest electric utility in Washington State.

And I’ll digress a little bit on the history of the company. It’s sort of an amalgamation of many smaller utilities, you know, some of them are like small mom-and-pop utilities. And they sort of over time were bought and then formed this larger utility. And we do electricity and natural gas. I’m on the electricity side, strictly on that side, and the group that I am is is the electric distribution group.

And so basically what our company does is we generate electricity, we transmit it, which is those big high-voltage power lines. And then we distribute it. Distribution is what happens after the substation. So, after the electricity is generated at a dam or a thermal power plants or whatever, it’s transmitted over those big high-voltages lines, and then it may go through one or more substations.

And so basically the last substation before it gets to your house, the people I train they, they manage those substations and then they manage all the feeders and everything that happens all the way out to the customers meter. And basically that involves a lot of situational awareness, monitoring what’s happening, making sure that they’re nothing’s overloaded, nothing’s undervolted.

You know, all the time, of course, people’s power goes out, you know, a car hits a power pole. Or there will be planned maintenance that happens. So there’s a lot of working with crews and switching things on and off or rerouting electricity.

To me, it’s a lot like being an air traffic controller, you’re basically having to be aware of what a lot of people are doing. And your main job is safety. And then your next main job really is efficiency, getting people’s electricity back on as quickly as possible. And of course, when there’s a big storm and a lot of people’s electricity is out, these people get very, very busy, and a lot of other people come in.

So my role really in working with these people is to work with and manage the entire process of instructional design, of creating and delivering curriculum. And that starts with the analysis, and then going through the creation of the curriculum and the delivery and then all the way to evaluation.

I think that covers it.

Convergence Training:

Yeah. Excellent, thank you so much.

So, Tom, that was actually much more in depth on what the company did. And I found it really interesting. And since you brought it up and talked about generation and transmission and substations, I don’t know what a substation is. Can you fill me in on that? Since you’ve learned so much about the subject matter experts you’ve been working with?

Dr. Tom Baer:


A substation will reduce the voltage of the electricity. So like in transmission, you might have 500,000 volts and the main function of a substations is it has these big transformers that will lower the voltage until by the time it gets to your house, there’s that last transformer that for many people is up on a pole, or it might be underground, and that reduces it to the 120 or so volts at your electrical outlet.

But substations also do a lot of switching. Coming into the substation are high voltage lines and coming out or what’s called feeders, and feeders are basically the lines if you’re driving along an arterial or along any street and it gets overhead power, those lines on wooden poles where you have lines that drop down to houses or businesses those are called feeders, and a and a typical substation will have several of them. And sometimes, if a part of the system goes out, if a tree falls down or something, you can switch a circuit from one or part of a circuit from one feeder to another or swap part of one circuit for another.

A little bit of history you might be aware of, the rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Thomas Edison was all for direct current and Tesla was for alternating current, and alternating current won out. And one of the main reasons why AC won out is because you can step the voltage up and down really easily. And because of that, because it’s because it’s easier to step voltage up and down, you can raise voltage because for transmitting for long distances, you want high voltage, and of course within your house you want lower voltage. And AC makes it really easy to step that up and down.

Actually our company goes back to the days when Nikola Tesla was alive and was designing equipment for Westinghouse. And so, I know at least of our power plants was built and went online in the 1890s, was built with Westinghouse equipment that was that goes back to when Nikola Tesla was designing for them.

Significant Training Needs in Electrical Transmission & Distribution

Convergence Training:

That’s fantastic. Thanks, Tom. I learned something that surrounded me my whole life and never knew anything about it. So that was a great intro.

So what are some of the major training needs at your workplace in power transmission and distribution now?

Dr. Tom Baer:

Some of the needs that come to mind first, I would say a big one is teaching subject matter experts to deliver some of the training.

Convergence Training:

So like train the trainer?

Dr. Tom Baer:

Trainer the trainer, exactly.

In our workplace, it’s very important to people that the person training them has credibility, has subject matter knowledge, and actually does that work on a regular basis. And so a big thing that I’m going to be involved with, I haven’t gotten to that point yet on the first project that I’m on, but I will be involved in train the trainers and we do that very deliberately.

I would say another big training need is helping people and these people are…their job title is usually distribution operator…is helping them keep up with constant change in an industry that’s changing profoundly.

The technology is changing a lot. And it was only a couple of years ago when they had to start using a new technology platform for doing their jobs, and now we’re actually rolling out yet another one.

Convergence Training:

Can you tell us, when you say technology platform, what you’re talking about there? I don’t mean a product name, just a product type.

Dr. Tom Baer:

So this is a platform that actually a lot of the people that you interview might use. It’s called ADMS.

Actually, no, not ADMS, the one that you might be familiar with is SCADA, and I forget what all the letters stand for, but it’s basically computer monitoring of very complex system that’s used in a lot of factories. I imagine it’s used in mines. It’s just basically if you have a lot of devices out there in your plant or in your mine, it’s a way of gathering sensing data like temperature or even the breathing atmosphere. I’m not quite sure how SCADA might be used in mines, but it’s a very common sort of way of doing things.

So in the electric utility industry, it’s called ADMS, or at least in distribution, which stands for automated distribution and management system, and it’s a way that’s…I guess to get more specific, these people are sitting in control rooms, and they’re sitting in a desk where they have a whole bunch of big computer monitors in front of them. And these monitors are giving them information about what’s happening out in the system, amperage and voltage and what is switched on and what’s switched off. And so it basically allows them to do sort of like their air traffic control thing, right.

And this platform allows them on a dynamic map to go to a specific transformer, say, and change a parameter, go to a specific switch and switch it on or off, or go to a specific…like say a switch needs to stay off. So this gets into the safety part of it.

What one of the things that these operators do is they do what’s called issuing a clearance, which is a type of lockout-tagout, in which a specific part of a circuit is de-energized, and where there are tags that “say this must stay de-energized until the operator dictates that this will become energized again.” And so they’re using this system, what will be called an ADMS system, to do that.

Change Management in Electrical T&D

Convergence Training:

Gotcha. And so I interrupt you and I apologize, but I thought that was fascinating as well.

So you’ve changed ADMS platforms a couple times and that’s part of your job responsibilities, dealing with the change management and getting people to buy into the new system and learn it. Is that correct?

Dr. Tom Baer:

Mostly correct.

I’m not sure how many times it’s been changed in the past. And I also think that technically, and I could be wrong here, but I think that technically what we have now is not an ADMS. It’s a different type of animal that involves a couple of different systems. But I do know that a couple years ago, it was changed. And now it’s going to change again. But even after it changes, there will be upgrades and updates and additional applications to master.

Convergence Training:


So you talked about train the trainer as a big training need to deal with their subject matter experts, you talked about kind of change management and all these new systems that are coming in and are going to keep coming, maybe faster and faster.

Any other primary training challenges?

Dr. Tom Baer:

Oh, I would say safety. Safety is at the core of the company’s culture.

In fact, just a little bit about the company culture…any time there’s a meeting, the meeting starts with a safety movement, when somebody shares a story about something like a near miss that may have happened in their personal lives. And they say something like “be careful when you’re driving in a parking lot.” It could be something like that.

But safety is at the core of the company’s culture. And it’s also at the core of what the operators do.

Convergence Training:

That makes sense. It’s a powerful, dangerous thing and came up in your example when you were talking about lockout-tagout.

So you’ve got train the trainer; you’ve got change management and keeping operators abreast of new technologies; you’ve got safety and safety training. Those are some of your primary training needs.

What are some of the challenges that you face while trying to meet those training needs?

Read more on change at work here.

Challenges in Meeting Training Needs

Dr. Tom Baer:

I would say one challenge is tight schedules. For instance, take the system that’s being built and implemented now. It’s being built in a way that there are rounds of testing and there will be changes made. And so really the system won’t be completely stable and final until maybe a month before go live time.

Convergence Training:

That’s common.

Dr. Tom Baer:

Yeah, it is. And so I should I should see if there are articles in your blog about this, because one of the things we do is just identify the core understandings and skills that are the least likely to change through the process and focus on those first.

Another is to work right alongside the development and testing team, so we are up-to-date all the time, on whatever defects are being fixed, which areas of functionality have been tested such that they’re unlikely to change at this point.

But then also given change, it’s possible that when we’re doing say, train the trainer, it’s possible that that a trainer may notice something, a way that something’s configured, and might have a really good bit of input that was overlooked, or that people just didn’t think of, in order to make the configuration a little bit easier for operators to use. So even at that point, things can change.

And also, for training needs, change management is a need, but it’s also a challenge too.

So sometimes the way I think of it, and I haven’t run this by many people, so I’m not sure who would agree with this or who wouldn’t, but it sort of reminds me of, you know, I play guitar, and there’s a certain guitar that I’ve had for a long time, and I really, really like it. And I wonder if it might be sort of like somebody saying, “Hey, I’m gonna, I’m going to take your guitar away and give you different guitar.” And yeah, it’s still a guitar, but it doesn’t have the characteristics that mine has.

And these, you know, the operators, they are working in a real-time situation where sometimes things happen so quickly, that they are basically falling back on their training and their experience. And they don’t have a whole lot of time to think. When they need a system that really works well with the way they work.

Convergence Training:

That they’re familiar with, that they have experience with, where they have automaticity…

Dr. Tom Baer:


So we are being very careful to get input from operators, from the people who are going to use the system. To be very transparent about what’s coming and what’s changing. To do the best we can…if something if something is going to change, and some people might not like it, because pretty much no matter what you do, of course, some people will like it and some people won’t. So just being very clear about what the business reasons are for the change.

There’s another aspect that I’m learning about, which is the operators that we train belong to a union. And they have a job role that is that is codified. And so really with a new system, it’s not changing their jobs. It’s basically giving them different tools to do the jobs that they were doing before. But for the change management piece, we need to be really careful to not cross that line, where you know, this is this is putting something on their plate that really wasn’t supposed to be part of their jobs. Instead, really what we want to make this about is helping them do their jobs better.

And I want to say too, I guess this fits into the meeting a challenge category, I see my job as improving the quality of life of the people that we’re training. Basically, we want them to have more job satisfaction, to feel better at their jobs, to feel very prepared. And so that to me really fits under change management and the change management challenge.

One thing that I love about this job is that we have a permanent change management group. That’s all they do is work with various programs who are going through changes and consult with them. And so for the first time in my career, I am on a major project where change management is explicitly a part of the project and there are people who specialize in change management who are working with us. And I’ll get to work with them when we’re designing train a trainer, I’ll get to work with them, to consult with them, at least for the content of the training is change management. Change management, it’s a big part of what we’re doing.

Exciting New Opportunities in Electrical Transmission & Distribution

Convergence Training:

Cool. All right. Well, thank you for that. That was interesting.

What are some of the biggest opportunities that your organization is trying to capture or grasp that you feel you the training or learning & development or instructional design efforts that you’re taking part in can contribute to and help your company reach those?

Dr. Tom Baer:

So I would say for opportunities, we are in a position, I think we’re in a very vital role to enable the company to adapt to profound changes in the utility industry.

And these changes, they include…one is going carbon neutral. In fact, our state legislature just passed a law that I think was it by 2025, or 2024, our electricity needs to be carbon neutral throughout the state.

Another is there is a big shift toward small customer-owned generation. So basically solar on people’s roofs. That’s usually what it is, it’s solar panels, and it’s becoming more and more common for people to generate some of their own electricity and sell it if there’s excess, they sell it back to the utility. So that requires that distribution grid be modernized.

Another change, too, it’s sort of part of the move to carbon neutral, is finding efficiencies and putting them into place. Like for instance, there are there are certain sort of topologies within the distribution grid that leads to more loss of electricity, energy just gets lost as it’s going down those wires and between the transformers and the customer. And things can be done to improve the efficiency considerably. So that’s another one.

So let’s see. So, for instance, for the for the customer generation, that will require more devices on the system that allows operators to see what’s going on, so operators can see what’s going on with each customer. Additional needs for safety and switching. if there’s no customer generation, you can open a switch that goes to a bunch of customers, you don’t need to worry about any coming from the customer back. And now of course, more switches are needed.

Speaking too of customer generation, sort of a type of that is batteries. Like I said that the Tesla company builds. Those are becoming more common. So basically this makes the distribution grid a lot more complicated. The systems that we’re putting in place will give operators tools to be able to accommodate that.

What I hear is that some utilities who aren’t able to adapt to these changes are likely going to go out of business. Because basically, especially in sunnier climates, I work with a guy who is based in Arizona, and he’s saying, in a place like that, where there’s so much sun, when a lot of people have their own generation of course, the utility will lose revenue. And that’ll make it more difficult even for the utility to adapt. And so utilities need to think of what they provide in a different way. And in Washington State, with the lack of sunshine, it’s different from Arizona. But still, there needs to be a shift where the utility does not think of itself as a monopoly. The utility instead thinks of itself, as we provide a very important service in terms of reliability, perhaps setting up equipment, perhaps helping to monitor equipment, things like that. As opposed to, well, we’re the only choice they have for electricity, so we’re just going to sit here and not worry about what may happen.

Convergence Training:

Right. So it sounds like your industry is, to use some jargon is being disrupted. You’re having to adapt to that. It would be beneficial for you to be a learning organization, so you can innovate.

Dr. Tom Baer:


Convergence Training:

Have you guys ever tried to–I won’t drag you off on this you can do give it yes or no answer–have you done any anything like a hackathon to try to figure out how to how to be more adaptable in your organization?

Dr. Tom Baer:

No, not that I know we might have. But you know, being new…oh, interesting.

Convergence Training:

Well, I’ll talk to you about that later.

Dr. Tom Baer:

Okay. So hackathon, meaning people hacking together solutions to things?

Convergence Training:

Right, it doesn’t necessarily mean code hacking, but it means asking how can we hack our company or hack our industry in order to be ready for the next change? And to not become, you know, Blockbuster.

Dr. Tom Baer:

Yeah. Interesting.

The Employee Population Receiving Training

Convergence Training:

Okay. So those are some huge opportunities. And it totally makes sense, when you think about what we read in the news every day, that your industry is changing so much.

So within that context, how would you describe the employee population you’re providing training to?

Dr. Tom Baer:

Highly competent, highly trained. These people, it takes many years of on-the-job training and classroom training to get to the point where they can run their own operator desk.

Very smart, I would say good at learning, because they’ve had to pick up so much up to this point, that they’re good at learning new things.

They take safety very seriously. Very safety conscious.

Convergence Training:

What about age range or gender or anything?

Dr. Tom Baer:

Let’s see. Age range, I would say it varies all the way from I would say late 20s into late 50s. I could be wrong about that.

Convergence Training:

Are you running into a situation where you’re losing some skilled employees due to retirement?

Dr. Tom Baer:

Hmm. We could be, I know that a lot of utilities are. I think we recently, before I got here, lost a bunch of people.

Convergence Training:

So are you actively trying to recruit and upskill new Distribution Operators?

Dr. Tom Baer:

That I don’t know. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, one of the things, what I hear at least anecdotally, is that operators don’t stay in one job as long as they used to.

And I know too, part of the reason why I was hired, is they want to beef up training. They want to have a much more substantial training organization. That has professional instructional designers and that basically take some of the training load off of the subject matter experts. And also just sort of helps helps codify the training more.

Increasing the Investment in Instructional Design in Electrical Transmission & Distribution

Convergence Training:


So you’ve got these highly skilled employees highly intelligent, great learners. What types or forms or modes or delivery methods of training are you currently using?

Training Delivery Methods

Dr. Tom Baer:

So it’s across the board. But in the program that I work on, it’s largely instructor-led, in-person, hands-on using a simulation environment.

And the new product that we’re implementing, one of the things that’s most exciting to me, is it is a very robust simulation environment. Such that the majority of the training will be scenarios that are loaded into this environment. And people will do the switching and issue the clearances and do all these things, as if it’s a real scenario. What we want to add is scenarios that they can do on their own. So if it’s during a shift, and if it’s a time when they’re sort of able to do other things, when they’re at work, they can go and do these scenarios, do some practice.

I also think that down the road, we may want to add elearnings, especially for new employees who come on new. They can sort of do it on their own time. We’re actually planning on doing some elearnings for this projects, and we’re going to make them really short, like maybe five minutes or less.

Because basically, the way that an operator shift goes, it’s really hard to say when they’re going to have time to do an elearning. At times they have stretches of time when they can do some other things and sometimes the whole shift, it’s just constant communication, the whole shift. So it’s hard to say.

So I’m excited to start building some short elearning because I haven’t been able to do that as much as I would have liked to I’ve. I found that in other jobs, from the subject matter expert, there’s often pressure to make the learnings longer, because they want to put everything in. And often in my job, my focus is on “Well, let’s look at look at the real training outcomes. And Is that really necessary?” And, you know, “Gee, I think that you know, for them to sit for 15 minutes in the learning is an awfully long time,” and things like that. So I’m going to make some short ones and seeing how that goes.

Convergence Training:

Cool. If I could ask a couple of follow-ups?

Can you tell us this scenario of a simulation environment that people are working in? Is this just like a simulated control panel? Is it the real physical thing or do I have VR glasses on?

Dr. Tom Baer:

No, no VR, it’s just the views and the functionality that they will have on their computer screens.

Convergence Training:

Gotcha. And then you talked about scenarios. And it sounds like currently that you’re training these people by running them through scenarios. But it sounds like the scenario involves an instructor present, because you want to get to the point where it’s totally self-guided and independent. Can you explain the way you’re doing scenarios now?

Dr. Tom Baer:

So I can say what I’ve seen, and this is also getting to being new. I have not seen enough of it. The way it’s done now, is there is sort of like a scenario leader, who is sitting at his computer and who is inputting changes in the system. They’re actually putting in like a break in a circuit where a pole may have come down, right? And then and then the person will call the trainee and will say, “Hey, we got this report of a pole down.” And then the trainee will call a will call a crew to go out and look at it. And there will be somebody who is at a desk with the phone who can sort of play the role of the correct pe

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