Connectivity that counts

Today, much fruitful activity in the process automation realm is on the meaningful integration of applications with each other, so that true knowledge and information—and not just more data—is the outcome.

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Keith LarsonBy Keith Larson, Publisher & VP Content

I THINK I was 36,000 feet over Greenland when it struck me. One of the last legitimate bastions of coveted disconnectedness from the rat race of electronic communication was under assault—and I found myself in full collusion.

You see, time was when a long flight—especially a transoceanic one—provided the perfect venue for Stephen Covey’s crucial, but often-neglected, Quadrant-2 activities, which he famously defined as “not urgent but important.” But now, seduced by Lufthansa’s in-flight Wi-Fi connection on the way back home to Chicago from Frankfurt, only the relatively nominal $27 fee separated me from several bonus hours of “productive” connectedness. And I answered the siren’s call—hook, line, and sinker.

I don’t mean to imply that connectivity in itself is bad. Indeed, it’s indispensable. It’s just that lately we seem to have all too much of the wrong kind. Or, more precisely, of the kind that doesn’t go far enough: connectivity is easy; it’s meaningful communication that’s difficult.

From an industry perspective, I think the process automation parallels are evident. Twenty years ago, systems were easily connected, but meaningful integration was hard. It’s as if one system spoke French, the other English. So, while they could hear each other, they couldn’t understand. Today, much fruitful activity in the process automation realm is on the meaningful integration of applications with each other, so that true knowledge and information—and not just more data—is the outcome.

Many technical professionals tend to focus on specifications and other “facts,” but the more meaningful communication that comes with face-to-face interaction and a handshake is how trust is built and how truly significant things are accomplished. E-mail and the other electronic means of communication will never rival face-to-face events, where people exchange information and develop relationships that would never have coalesced over the web.

Two quick examples: last week’s travels took me to the beautiful Canadian Rockies (no in-transit Wi-Fi connection, this time!) and Matrikon’s Valued Partner event in Banff, Alberta. Here, the majority of presentations to the group, from Matrikon’s management and other key partners companies, dwelt not on technology as primary challenge, but on issues of people and company culture.

Meanwhile, the latest AutomationXchange, in Carefree, Ariz., (disclosure: hosted by Control’s sister publication Control Design) brought together OEM engineering teams with suppliers of industrial automation technology in an unprecedented, one-on-one exchange of ideas and solutions. The key to AutomationXchange’s success? An investment by both parties before the event to understand the potential fit for a business relationship, which is then explored and developed in person at AutomationXchange.

For me, the difference between electronic connectivity and personal communication is driven home by a story once told to me by a good friend and church pastor, Tom Hickey. He tells the story of a young child who, having been told by his parents how Jesus and his angels will always be with her to protect her, nevertheless makes repeated appearances in her parents’ bedroom whenever a thunderstorm strikes. “Don’t you know God will protect you?” asks her mother. To which the child replies, “I know that in my head. But sometimes I just need some skin.”

And so it is with us. The next time you’re on a long flight, and are tempted to see what’s new at the office, resist the temptation, I urge you! Spend some guilt-free time in Quadrant 2, preparing yourself to more effectively communicate when you’re next face-to-face with your business associates.

Because, if we’re not careful, pretty soon the guy next to you will be Skyping away about delivery times and the office holiday party—and even your brief magazine read or nap will be shot. Next up, of course, will be a planeload of simultaneous, mobile-phone connections. Me? I’ll take the crying baby in seat 12-D.

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