The human side of IT/OT convergence

Photo courtesy Michael Davis-Burchat via Flickr

IT doesn't meet OT without people.

In his opening remarks at Ventyx World on Tuesday last week, Greg Scheu, Region Manager for ABB in North America, talked about IT/OT convergence and referenced the first asset health project undertaken at American Electric Power.  It probably wasn’t in his talking points, but he noted that a majority of the data that AEP had on its transformers was unstructured.

In database terms, that means that, aside from the basics like model number, ratings and maintenance dates, most of the information about AEP’s transformers was essentially contained in a giant field of manually collected data.

The implication for developing an asset health platform is that much of the information needed to make informed decisions about repairs, replacements and O&M spending must be teased out of paragraphs written by field technicians and engineers over the course of years if not decades. In short, it does not lend itself to automated assessment.

Therein lays the value of deep domain expertise, something that ABB is working to apply in a more automated way with the concept of the Asset Health Center. But just as computer diagnoses for human ailments are based on doctors’ knowledge and experience, so too are asset management systems dependent on the knowledge and experience of the engineers who build them.

So people are not yet obsolete (yay!), and human engineers will continue to play a vital role even as areas like asset health become more sophisticated and more reliant on technology. Humans, take a bow.

But not so fast—we humans are still very good at getting in our own way. That wasn’t quite the message sent by John Tish, Director of the IT/OT Competency Center at Cliffs Natural Resources, but it’s pretty close.

Tish discussed various aspects of IT/OT convergence—how it’s about taking a more holistic approach to managing technology platforms, how IT is transaction-based and OT is more about telemetry and real-time monitoring and how each works to a different set of operational priorities —but he also put a strong emphasis on the human factor. He noted the cultural differences between the IT and OT camps, and that the convergence of these functions should not be viewed as a zero sum game.

“This is not about IT taking over the world, but rather working collaboratively with the OT community to drive greater business value.” he said. “Everyone on my team speaks the language of the business.”

For Tish, a self-professed IT guy, that means that most of them don’t come from a pure IT background. Instead they have broad experience in the mining industry that extends beyond IT to include operations.

“Having an appreciation of the challenges of OT environments goes a long way toward building trusting working relationships,” he said. “It is critical that IT understands OT and, conversely, that OT understand IT.”

He also acknowledged corporate IT departments’ penchant for reinventing wheels. Building enterprise software tools is not the core competency of a mining company, or any company outside of the enterprise software business. And yet, so many firms still believe they can make a better mousetrap in-house.

[Full disclosure: this includes ABB, which only recently retired the homegrown content management system that ran our website for more than 15 years. RIP.]

“This is where you can help,” Tish said, speaking directly to the Ventyx management and staff in the room. Because, at the end of the day, the whole point of combining IT and OT to produce advanced tools like Asset Health Center is to “move data quickly up to where decisions are made.”

In other words, automate the tedious stuff and allow managers to focus on what’s important: running their business. So far, there’s no app for that second bit.

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About the author

Bob Fesmire

Bob Fesmire is a Content Manager at ABB, based in Cary, North Carolina. He has written more than 150 articles and white papers on a variety of topics including energy efficiency, industrial automation and big data. In addition to his work at ABB, Bob is also the co-author of Energy Explained, a non-technical introduction to all aspects of the energy industry.
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