Past successes, short-term comfort can be a barrier to initiative, long-term improvements

What's required are endlessly repeated demonstrations of value and slow chipping away, until formerly radical ideas gain enough critical mass to go mainstream, says Jim Montague

By Jim Montague

Over the past few months, several sources have expressed frustration that they can't get potential users to adopt hardware or software solutions that would be undoubtedly beneficial to them. This was beyond their usual reluctance to buying a costly, new product or the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra.

Whether it was wireless, cybersecurity, process safety, network integration or upgrading to new controls, these sources told me they often can't convince customers to invest in solutions that even the customers acknowledge will benefit them. Typically, they get buy-in from technicians and engineers, and may even implement a small test application that proves the gains of the planned solution. However, final approval from management of a wider implementation never comes, and the project dies.

This is a very old story. Sadly, many useful innovations in many fields throughout history go ignored and unused. Getting surgeons to wash their hands before surgery was reported to be a big struggle in the 19th century. While researching a story for Control Design awhile back—"In a Flash: Innovator Awards 2007"—I learned that Benjamin Franklin's lightning rod was criticized by churchmen of the time because it diverted what they saw as the will of God. We all know what happened to Galileo and Copernicus, of course. Even further back, the story of the Buddha says that, even after he attained enlightenment, his message was ignored by the first man he met.

Many of us have become soft, brittle and scared—on the edge of busting a hip that won't heal for nine months, and ready to give up real, messy freedom for fake, tidy reassurances.

So what to do? Well, the lesson of all these tales is that people must come to embrace, employ and benefit from innovations on their own. Thankfully, surgical hygiene, heliocentric theory and lightning rods were all vindicated eventually.

And that's what it takes: endlessly repeated demonstrations of value and slow chipping away, until formerly radical ideas gain enough critical mass to go mainstream. The 20-year overnight success is an unreasonable but apparently unavoidable process. In process control and automation, I'm told each stage of the historic pneumatic, relay, PLC and DCS, PC-based control migration was like extracting impacted molars. I've been involved long enough to see the kicking and screaming as industrial networking evolved from hardwiring to fieldbuses, Ethernet, wireless and the Internet. Not pretty.

However, the added hurdle raised by my recent interviews is that many potential users of helpful technologies are discouraged from investing in them. But how can this be, when new solutions are proven to deliver efficiencies and profitability? Good question. It's the difference between making no effort to change but maintaining a little short-term profit, compared to taking the initiative, investing in useful upgrades, and gaining big, long-term profits.  

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Unfortunately, past successes of established technologies and habits—and the prosperity and comfort they provided—also instill a powerful incentive against trying anything new later. You know the drill: no one ever got fired for buying more of the fill-in-the-blank technology we've used all along. Inertia is already powerful, but it's unstoppable when it comes with a salary. The price is that many of us have become soft, brittle and scared—on the edge of busting a hip that won't heal for nine months, and ready to give up real, messy freedom for fake, tidy reassurances. 

The good news is remembering that all the old equipment and methods were once new, radical departures themselves, and they had to fight for a place at the table, just like today's innovations must do. All we have to do is get up, stretch out, walk around, see what's going on, find some like-minded partners and solutions like those Control covers all the time, and put in a little effort to make them happen.

Please note it's guaranteed you'll irritate and anger many people if you pursue this, but most of them are bored out of their minds and thirsting for change anyway, even if their initial reaction is negative. Just shake off that rust and get moving.