Listen to the Kids

The Latest Social Media and Networking Tools. Are They Being Used by Process Control and Automation Engineers?

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This article was printed in CONTROL's July 2009 edition.

Jim MontagueBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

I dislike change, but not just because I'm getting old and grouchy. I think it's because I've seem so many "improvements” that were actually worse than what they replaced. 

For example, I think email exchanges are way less efficient than telephone conversations. As useful as typing is for composing and entering text for publication, I don't think it compares to the speed and dynamic give-and-take inherent in spoken conversation.

Even conversation has its limits. I mean, every time I hear a cell phone caller say, "I'm getting on the plane," I wonder whether even phones are worthwhile. As a result, I've tended to think that many types of social media area waste of time. Most of the instant message texting and Twittering that my teenage daughters do seems to consist of the old, "What do you wanna do?" and, inevitably, "I don't know. What do you wanna do?" Very productive.

Wikis, Google Groups, Twitter and the rest might seem silly, but they can be very useful if engineers can use them to help solve real problems.

The devices, mechanisms and formats of communication; that is, the countless handhelds, infrastructure and software, seem to have replaced the content. Not having anything to say has been trumped by that fact that it's acceptable to say nothing so long as you can do it in the most stylish, modern way possible.

This is way I approached this issue's cover "Conducting in Concert" with plenty of apprehension. We wanted to explore the latest social media and networking tools and see if they were being used by process control and automation engineers, and if they had any value to their colleagues in other applications, who also might benefit from using them. As often happens with these stories, I was pretty surprised by what I found.

Perhaps it's because so many engineers have Blackberries and daughters, but almost everyone seems to be at least aware of technologies like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google Groups, Microsoft SharePoint, Central Desktop, WebEx and wikis. However, more than a few of these engineers aren't just viewing them from a distance. Some technical professionals and their companies are using them in concert with the collaborative tools they've already used for years. They and their coworkers use WebEx, not just for online meetings and demonstrations, but also to exchange and examine vital content collectively. Meanwhile, others increasingly use SharePoint to distribute and pore over project documents and details. My daughters and their friends tell me the beauty of texting and Twitter isn't the typing, but rather that they send a message and converse with two dozen friends simultaneously.

In fact, the capabilities of work-sharing tools and software such as SmartPlant and aspenOne are being extended by these newer tools. Many engineers have LinkedIn pages, some suppliers are using Facebook groups to update users of their distributed control systems, and a few have already adapted these existing tools into new forms as needs arise.

For example, Palantiri Systems and ABB are working on a pilot project that produces a mash-up of a Google Earth map and a variety of other listings. These two sources combine process facilities and applications that have reported problems with experts qualified to provide solutions. The result is one map that shows both where the difficulties and the experts are located at the same time. The potential benefits of this and other social media are huge for the process industries.

I think the main lesson for me here was not to dismiss others' use of social media if they happen to be using it for communication that I'm not interested in. I don't much care about teenage gossip, but I'm very interested in all of the technical fields I cover regularly and others as well. Once again, I'm reminded that good interviews, stimulating interaction and useful content come from asking the right questions and waiting for interesting answers. Much like a refinery, all I have to do then is boil down the product into a useful form. Social media tools, both new and well-established, are just one more avenue to that destination.  

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