For companies to benefit from new technologies, IT teams used to working in spotless data centers need to collaborate with operations technology colleagues who often work in dangerous industrial settings. If not managed well, the result could be a clash of cultures and a potential crisis.
As industry seeks to leverage Industrial IoT, analytics, cloud computing, and emerging technologies such as AI-powered robots, leaders are also grappling with new management requirements—and a need to collaborate in smarter ways.
At one time, IT managers and staff may have been holed up in corporate headquarters, far away from the action on the plant floor. Now, they find themselves working side by side with their operations technology (OT) counterparts: the operators, engineers, technicians, and maintenance personnel.
Collectively, they’re tasked with taking existing OT processes, applications, and hardware—which may consist of heavy machinery, industrial robots, or equipment based on computer numerical control (CNC) technology—and marrying it with cutting-edge IT infrastructure that includes dedicated storage and compute hardware, cloud-based applications, sophisticated sensors, and other components that make up the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
For many companies, the convergence of OT and IT truly represents a paradigm shift (see “The Intelligent Edge: What it is, what it’s not, and why it’s useful”). But it also presents a source of potential friction—and a management challenge.
OT and IT meet on the edge
“The edge is a place where OT has traditionally resided,” says Dr. Tom Bradicich, vice president and general manager, IoT and Converged Edge Systems, at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. “The manufacturing floor, a wind farm, a submarine, a smart car, a smart city, a power plant, a smart grid, an industrial oil refinery—those are all OT domains. And more and more, IT is moving out there.”
In addition to smarter industrial equipment, such as industrial pumps equipped with processors and sensors, companies are taking advantage of integrated “edge to core” solutions that traverse IT and OT systems, from the data center or cloud all the way out to the edge, Bradicich says.
Instead of having control over just central IT and corporate systems, IT control is spreading out to the many different edges, to help manage applications, networks, hardware, and security.
However, not everyone in the OT world will embrace IT having a bigger role. “My experience has been the IT folks are open to sharing a platform with the OT folks, more so than vice versa,” says Linda Salinas, vice president of operations at Texmark Chemicals. Salinas oversees production, maintenance, logistics, process safety management, DOT hazardous materials, and environmental compliance.
On the other hand, some IT staff may not be prepared to get down and dirty in OT domains. “You might have a person who knows exactly how to replace a computer board, but there’s no way he is going to go out on an oil rig to do it,” Bradicich says. “So, you have to find a person who knows both how to replace a computer board and is OK with taking a trip out to the oil rig, or going in a submarine, or out to an automobile plant. The list goes on, because the edge is so diverse.”
Eric Feagler, a vice president at GE Digital, says there is an inherent degree of friction between OT and IT, each with its own areas of domain expertise. “I do see a lot of IT getting involved in these decisions, and I see them participating and sometimes trying to drive things without a full understanding of the operations side of it,” he says. “You’re not going to take a [programmable logic controller] system, for example, and put it in the cloud, although IT may think that’s a good idea.”
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Texmark’s Salinas remembers a day in December 2016 when the petrochemical manufacturing company took part in a technology innovation workshop at its plant in Galena Park, Texas, just outside of Houston. While executives and advisors had previously discussed how IT could transform their OT processes, it was the first time many of the OT staff were exposed to the concepts, according to Salinas.
Twenty people were in the room for the innovation session, representing not only OT specialties such as instrumentation and maintenance, but also sales, customer service, compliance and safety, and accounting, all the way up to Texmark’s CEO, Doug Smith. A division of Chemical Exchange Industries, Texmark employs about 50 people and produces dicyclopentadiene as well as various industrial alcohols and solvents. It also serves as a toll manufacturer, taking raw materials from clients and processing and distributing finished petrochemical products on their behalf.
The day-long event included a long discussion about pain points—not just specific problems facing individual departments, but broader, institutional issues such as visitor, contractor, and personnel accountability; limited process visibility; and inefficiencies around maintenance and inspections. The purpose of the session was to get input from people in different functional roles across Texmark and distill the pain points into real projects that could potentially be addressed through emerging technologies propagating to the industrial world.
People were excited about the opportunity to share their ideas and experience, and were looking forward to brainstorming. Salinas recalls, “We’re in the room, and the facilitator starts asking questions. ‘What can I do for you?’ he asked, just getting warmed up. Our millwright with 30 years’ experience, George Villarreal, raises his hand, and he says, ‘You could make my job easier.’”
The unexpected comment got a lot of laughs, but in hindsight, Salinas believes the comment reflects an important priority for OT staff as Texmark develops an advanced manufacturing environment for petrochemicals, a concept called the refinery of the future.
“That’s the whole point,” she says. “If his job is easier, he’s spending less time with headaches, and he’s spending less money fixing those headaches. If we can focus his efforts only where they’re needed, then that frees him up to do other things: evaluate new projects, participate on a troubleshooting team, or get to the root cause of some other issue. He can train someone else on best practices. He can be in training himself to improve his skills. It just kind of frees him up for all of those things to support the broader business needs.”
Getting OT and IT on the same page
Industrial organizations can potentially find themselves dealing with a rocky marriage, as an OT culture used to having strict control over plant and field operations is required to collaborate with an IT culture accustomed to more standard enterprise applications and IT architectures.
It can be done, though. Both Salinas and Bradicich say finding common ground is key to successful OT-IT convergence.
“The management team and executive team must agree on the common good of the company,” Bradicich says. He advises starting with the lowest common ground and then working down into the detailed operational areas or specific benefits.
Bradicich uses the example of an auto manufacturer, which might start with the lowest common goal of making money for the company. The IT and OT teams might then move deeper and agree upon a shared goal of selling more cars to boost revenue. At that point, the discussion can turn to making improvements on the factory floor to boost production and make more cars, which means active collaboration between various OT departments and IT.
“That’s where it gets a little complicated,” Bradicich says. “Because then you get into who owns it. But at least you always have this goal that you can fall back on when it gets tough.”
At Texmark, Salinas says everybody gets the big picture. “Regardless of what department you’re in, whether you’re swinging a hammer or you’re sitting at a computer, we all get how each of our jobs contribute to the greater good and the end goal, which is to make money and stay in business,” she says. “When you have that kind of team in place, they’re open to whatever makes Texmark operations safer, more efficient, and more profitable.”
Salinas says Texmark’s chief OT and IT managers have “sort of an understanding: ‘OK, this is your playground, this is my playground, and I promise to play nice when I’m in your playground and vice versa. And when our two paths cross, we’ll work together because we have that common goal,’ which is, of course, to support the business.”
But even before that collaboration starts, Salinas says it’s critical to have other departments involved to chart the path forward. Looking back at the innovation session at Texmark, she believes having representatives from across the company in the same room to discuss the pain points and potential solutions was crucial.
“Texmark made the decision to fill the room with as many Texmark people as we could, whereas I think [other companies] may not make that same decision,” Salinas says. She adds that the danger of including just a small number of people from a few departments is that the rest of the company may not be as invested in the innovation process.
Rethinking roles and reporting
Companies may also need to rethink roles and lines of command. Beyond the need to converge operational and information technologies, a number of internal and external factors are encouraging companies to rethink their corporate structures. For instance, at Texmark, the staffer responsible for distributed control systems (DCS) was once part of the maintenance department. “Because of the evolution of DCS and instrumentation and OT, the DCS manager now reports to our director of engineering,” Salinas says.
Another factor at play is the increasing realization that IT and OT can no longer be regarded as cost centers but as actual drivers of innovation and competitive advantage.
GE’s Feagler says some companies may appoint a high-level executive to act as a “functional layer” above the organization in order to leverage technology to change operations. “I’m seeing this chief digital officer come in, whether it’s a chief digital officer, a VP of innovation, or something else along those lines, and they’re allowing innovation to drive that convergence,” he says.
But don’t expect a wholesale merger of IT and OT. “In my career, I’ve watched the CIO go from a cost center to having a seat at the table at board meetings,” Bradicich says. “I see the chief OT person also having a seat. And I don’t think they’ll combine with the CIO because the OT team will graduate to contributing much more to the company due to the value of the ‘things’ of the IoT.” The data and insights from IoT-connected devices will drive a new wave of product innovation and disruption, he predicts.