Systems Integration / Asset Management

Automation Process Knowledge Management

Tribal Knowledge - New Tools Are Putting Process Know-How into Online Pools, Letting Newbies Access More Useful Knowledge, and Even Awakening Some On-the-Job Training Efforts

By Jim Montague

July 2011 CoverIn the good old hunter-gatherer days, know-how and those who needed it didn't evolve so fast. Likewise, masters and apprentices in traditional process applications were in on-site engineering departments in the same location, and they had time to work together on projects, convey critical experience from one generation to the next, and even learn to deal with unusual situations. Needless to say, times have changed.

Years of short-sighted downsizing and layoffs gutted and eliminated most internal engineering groups. Even more veteran engineers are retiring, and their remaining colleagues are spread painfully thin. And these staff cuts have all happened at a time when technological advances are happening faster than ever before. Talk about bad timing.

As a result, some end users, system integrators (SIs) and suppliers are collecting useful and critical process, operations and maintenance knowledge and storing it in ways that can be easily accessed by less-experienced engineers, technicians and operators. And while this collected know-how begins with formal, documented procedures, most efforts also include gathering tacit data or "tribal" knowledge that was never preserved anywhere before now.     

New Smarts Needed

For example, system integrator Maverick Technologies ( in Columbia, Ill., reports it's maintained a learning culture since it started in 2000 and began compiling its homegrown technical skills and softer, people-oriented abilities and courses in its Maverick University website in 2005-06. Maverick also employs its Project Complete project execution methodology (PEM) to make sure everyone uses the same "sheet music" on each project. However, to preserve more detailed data and its own tribal knowledge, the system integrator also launched an internal "Maverick Wiki" website about 18 months ago.

"We have a lot of engineers and about 500 employees in all, and we needed to have more information at our fingertips," says Paul Galeski, Maverick's CEO. "But our staffers are very geographically distributed, and so we needed the better information backbone that a wiki could give us."

Consisting mainly of high-level, documented knowledge and functional specifications, Project Complete includes at its core 180 policies and procedures that Maverick uses to execute its projects, but the company found it still required more. "We needed the wiki for more real-time, intimate, unstructured knowledge," adds Galeski. "We still had a lot of minutae, undocumented features, small issues and tasks that had to be captured. For instance, a regular document might say, ‘You're supposed to do this,' but a specific application might add that, ‘You also must do this and this,' such as describing what kind of I/O card it needs."

Though the wiki's specific benefits haven't been tracked yet, Galeski reports that it's already making many projects more efficient and increasing profits. "The wiki makes it easier to access detailed, virtual information, especially at job sites," he says. "And updates aren't limited to one or two individuals, but instead go to the whole company. For example, if someone on the West Coast resolves an historian issue, they can now offer it up to the whole organization. There's no longer a whole process to publish. It's just there. The staff has already found these, and they've been very useful to some who've been ‘out in the weeds' at 2 or 3 a.m."        

Know-How Drives DAQ…

Whatever their level of development or sophistication, all knowledge management programs are built on their user's process control application and its essential operations and maintenance data, which is often logged in data acquisition (DAQ) systems, historians and similar PC-based devices.

For example, CF Chefs ( in Dallas, built its foodservice sauces business on manually switched and controlled production lines, whose operators expertly mix and cook 160 different items in five- to 2800-pound batches in kettles on load cells. However, when the company recently replaced two of its four liquid production lines, its managers decided to collect its recipes and operators' know-how, so they could be carried out by automatic process controls.

"It was becoming a bigger challenge for CF Chefs to keep track of all their recipes, ingredient weights, temperatures and cooking times at each stage of production. The temperatures and cooking times also varied due to different ambient temperatures and cooking times needed at different times of day," says Francisco Porras, owner and founder of system integrator HMI Automation Inc. in Grapevine, Texas.

Consequently, CF Chefs worked with Porras and HMI Automation to design and build the new lines, which include GE Intelligent Platform's Cimplicity iFix software, Invensys Operations Management's Wonderware software or HMI Automation's HMI Max software for the front end, and Red Lion Control's ( DSPSX data logging station, which allows web-based reporting, trending and analysis via Ethernet networking. "We already had a Red Lion data station at CF Chefs, but its SD card was filling up too fast. So, we hooked that station up to a server and scheduled Windows XP Pro to copy the card's files onto a central server. Now, the operators have all the data and files about what they made and when."

Mike Krafft, CF Chefs' manufacturing VP, adds that, "We can now use a touchscreen to view every part of our processes, download formulas and recipes, acknowledge weights and check cooking and clean-in-place (CIP) temperatures every five minutes. This reduced operators needed on each line from three to one, improved accuracy by 50%, and even lets them walk away from the line to deal with more value-added tasks. Our increased accuracy helps us meet the needs of higher-end customers and lets us do more documentation for tracing purposes, which both our customers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are demanding. For us, our automated lines save a lot of time and money and means a lot fewer headaches."

…Aids APC and Alarms Too

Not surprisingly, advanced process control (APC) and its models are also founded on preserving and reusing knowledge. However, they also deliver the most value when staffers add them to their collective know-how to make improvements in their processes.    

For instance, Lothar Lang, consulting human factors engineer at LyondellBasell (, reports his firm used to focus most on the reliability of its equipment, machines and petrochemical processes, but realized it also needed to tie in its people's expertise to get everyone on the same page and improve performance. For instance, critical conditions management (CCM) typically deals with operations and HMI issues, but it must also prioritize its reporting to get the most crucial alerts in front of users, so they aren't just treating symptoms instead of underlying causes.

"We'd used our staff support groups and ExperTune software to implement key performance indicator (KPI) monitoring in processes at 18 facilities, including percent of control loops not in normal operation, percent of loops without output constraints, loops with valve issues and loops with significant oscillations, and then continuously improved them," explains Lang.

For example, LyondellBasell recently deployed an APC system at its petrochemical plant in Channelview, Texas, but then began experiencing wild swings in the steam flow and reflux rate of a distillation column that makes an intermediate product for polyurethane (Figure 1). After an initial search failed to find an APC-related cause, the plant's operators found that ExperTune's ( PlantTriage plant-monitoring software showed that the column's pressure controller was the root cause of the oscillations. Consequently, stabilizing the column allowed the APC to quickly optimize its operation, and reduced two steam flows by 7000 pounds per hour.

"Operators need to be aware of what's going on in their applications, and be able to make changes when they go out of range," adds Lang. "However, you can't expect operators to be proactive if there are too many loops that aren't performing, and if they're constantly putting out fires. PlantTriage helps us find issues and helps compensate for a lack of staff. This is why we're driving the use of KPIs to improve loops in automatic, reduce oscillations, improve performance and keep within efficiency ranges to produce quality products."

Retention and Collaboration

Besides collecting and redistributing tribal knowledge, users can also benefit from how veterans deliver their know-how, reports Eddie Habibi, founder and CEO of PAS Inc. (, and Jim Conner, retired operations and technology VP at Celanese ( Conner helped start Project Graybeard at his former company explore ways to retain senior staffers' knowledge, so they could help their colleagues collaborate better and access safety data easier.

"When experienced people are asked for help, they provide the basic answer, but they also tell more, and usually add important facts about what the questioner is trying to do," explains Conner. "Veterans will answers questions that less-experienced colleagues haven't thought to ask yet, and will push key information to them."

To replicate some veteran awareness, Conner says Project Graybeard worked with PAS' Integrity software and Automation Genome Mapping software to develop a new application that can reach into databases and secure explicit and tacit information, such as incident reports, maintenance records, automation configurations and other data. It will be released later this year or early in 2012. "This tool works in the same way as an expert source," adds Conner. "It says, ‘You asked for this, but you also need to know this.' For example, a user may want to change the controls on an oxygen compressor, and this tool will push documents to them about design, maintenance, incidents and safety interlocks."  

Creating Communities, Training Tribes

To help it capture explicit and tacit knowledge—and especially the instinctive methods of veteran operators and engineers at specific plants—Honeywell Process Solutions ( has formed more than 10 "Communities of Practice" during the past two years, and plans to have 20 up and running by the end of this year. Enabled by Microsoft's Sharepoint tools, these online groups are organized around vertical markets, such as oil and gas refining, mining or pulp and paper, or around technical areas such as advanced solutions, lifecycle solutions or other categories. The model for these communities was Honeywell's APC group, and each includes a global collaboration section and an information optimization section. So far, these communities have about 1500 total members. Every community is managed and led by rotating subject-matter expert leaders, but the whole community captures and archives the best practices it needs in a wiki-type platform, and drafts and carries out other goals.

"In the past, these kinds of groups were very ad hoc, and used service management or customer relationship management (CRM) tools. Now these communities of practice are much more organized, easier to use, and have become of the daily lives of many engineers that use them," says John Sorensen, Honeywell's director of services. "For example, if a user needs the right algorithms for a PLC or DCS in a specific application, such as a German pharmaceutical manufacturer building a greenfield plant in the U.S., then he can pull the best practices for those components from the community's veteran users, such as the unique tweaks for those types of controllers."

However, if you want to recruit and organize your own team or tribe, there are several key steps, according to Polytron (, an Atlanta-based process and packaging SI (Table 1). In his whitepaper, "Tribal Knowledge," ( Polytron's technology transfer and training manager, Rande Allen emphasizes building a new organizational culture instead of trying to change or replace an old one, which can help counteract resistance. "To create a new tribe, care must be taken to ensure that trainees from all shifts are taught together simultaneously. This is done to make sure all have the same knowledge base, and to begin building the new bonds and common language that are vitally important for a successful tribe," stated Allen. "Next, because so much tribal knowledge is verbal, steps must be taken to encourage tribal knowledge sharing, recording and dissemination. Finally, there must be a means by which tribal knowledge and resulting innovations can travel from employees up to management."