A Willingness to Learn

You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks—and Old Editors and Engineers Too.

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By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Contrary to traditional opinion, trainers say most animals can learn new behaviors and activities at almost any age—if they have the right encouragement and patient instruction. Cesar Milan, star of National Geographic Channel’s “The Dog Whisperer,” uses his “Power of the Pack” method to train dog owners to understand their pets’ innate pack mentality and so get along much better with them.

Personally, this is excellent news because I and other writers and editors are having to learn a bunch of new skills and technologies to deliver useful information to our audiences. For example, Control is now reproducing its online columns as audio podcasts. This meant I had to practice my speaking voice and annunciate more clearly, and learn to use a digital recorder and its supporting software. At first, the Snickers-sized recorder reminded me so much of a candy bar that I had to catch myself a couple of times before reflexively biting it in half. No lie. However, as soon as I gained a little competence on the recorder, we immediately switched to an online recording service that I still haven’t had time to learn.

Not be outdone, our sister magazine, Control Design, has been shooting, editing and posting videos of machine builders talking about their devices. Besides getting a haircut and a new jacket, I had to learn to look natural on camera; i.e., not freeze up, pass out or swallow my tongue. All valuable skills, but these take some work as well.

Technological changes seem to come so fast these days that there’s barely time to be introduced to them, let alone become adept, before the next upheaval begins. I’m comforted only by the fact that most of the technical professionals I cover seem to be facing even more difficult challenges. Increasingly powerful software and ever smaller PCs have been overrunning traditional control and automation disciplines for many years and blowing up formerly separate technological silos. Fieldbuses, Ethernet and wireless are only the latest waves in this process. Everyone knows this, but handling it often remains a partially-met challenge.

Maybe this is why I was so surprised when I began researching this month’s feature on asset management. With all the big-ticket process applications and end products out there, I’d thought everyone already had plant-wide asset management systems, or at least the good players did and the bad ones wouldn’t care anyway. What I found was that many of the best asset management efforts I could find remain incomplete. Sure, there’s lots of cutting-edge software and communications, but everyone I talked to says asset management’s biggest problem is still getting people to integrate these improved methods into their daily workflows. You can buy a million-dollar solution, but it’s not a success until your staff uses it to save some labor and time. This isn’t easy because many technical/organizational separations and internal rivalries remain as persistent as ever.

So what’s to be done? I recommend doing what I do when covering an unfamiliar topic, complex new technology. Take a deep breath. Find out as much as you can about this new environment. Try to keep an open mind. See what parts of your expertise may help in these new situations. Oh, and make sure you have plenty of aspirin and antacids on hand. I sprinkle them like blueberries into muffin batter before baking.

Of these techniques, keeping an open mind is the most difficult. I think this is because, as I shuffle onward towards 50 years old, my previous knowledge has piled up to the point where it can be hard to see new events and perspectives when they appear, and too tempting to reject them when they arrive.

So, I try to shove my voluminous knowledge aside just a bit, get out of my own way, and get a better look at who and what’s new coming down the pike. I’ll take liver snacks, but I prefer bacon. Woof, woof!

 

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