OpsManage / Asset Management

IT-OT convergence talk is cheap, implementation is a shock

Keep an eye peeled for snags in your own experiences, and begin to trace their causes, context and solutions

By Jim Montague

Be careful what you wish for. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Easier said than done. Let sleeping dogs lie. The list of cautionary bromides goes on forever because we all love to say, "I told you so," including me.

I'm bringing this up now because, even though so many individuals in the process control and automation industries talk endlessly about the wonderfulness of bringing operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) together, it can be startling when the chores involved in actually merging them start to pile up. Similar to all talk (including written columns like this one), discussions about IT-OT convergence are cheap. Making it happen in reality can be a shock—even if it was a telegraphed blow we knew or should have known was coming. 

I could cite more than a few examples of OT-IT mashups in my own stories, Control's overall coverage, at many of the recent conferences we've attended, and in other print and online publications. However, there are just too many to choose from. Maybe it's because we're focused on North America and Europe, where so much industrial infrastructure and their old, obsolete controls are wearing out and too often dangerously neglected—due to the "If ain't not broke, don't fix it" and run-to-failure commandments of old. No doubt, these conflicts are also sparked by the accelerating emergence of microprocessors, software, Internet networking and all their related buzzwords in process control applications and plant floors everywhere.    

Because examples of IT-OT snags are so plentiful, my humble advice is apply a filter. By that, I mean keep an eye peeled for them in your own experiences, and begin to trace their causes, context, individual situations, and especially any specific solutions that were useful in resolving them. I'll continue to do my best to find and deliver helpful examples, too, but it would be more efficient if you could find some for yourself, right?

Personally, I've learned that resolving OT-IT squabbles requires a conscious effort to talk about organizational issues and strategies by technical professionals who aren't used to talking to each other, and typically use very different languages. High-level managers over both sides can require them to cooperate, but anyone at any level can reach out and make a concentrated effort to collaborate with IT or OT, and vice versa.

Plus, many of the software-based tools that can help them gather requested data and initiate optimization efforts are so much easier to use, necessary programming is so much reduced, and networking barriers are so much lower that continuing to resist OT-IT convergence can't be justified.

Unfortunately, there's also a huge element of inertia that keeps IT and OT apart. It's the same persistent impulse that prevents improvement and innovation in all kinds of process control and automation applications and in pretty much every other human endeavor. Many of us just won't get off the dime to do what obviously needs to be done. I can think of a dozen examples where I regularly engage in this kind of mental stiction, and plenty more if I work up the initiative to give it some thought.

So, like any stuck valve or cold engine, I can also benefit from a good jolt or other application of urgency to shake me out of my lethargy. I believe that I and my fellow humans get set in our ways because we don't want to waste effort that was needed for previous problems and crises, and which we assume will be needed in the near future to handle the next issues that come up. However, when no difficulties emerge, we still hang onto the get-up-and-go that could be used for exercise—our personal partial stroke valve test—and instead grow stiff. 

Consequently, if it appears that no challenge is coming soon, we have to initiate our own. This applies not just to convincing OT and IT to get along, but to most other problems, too. If we can be made aware that relative calm and prosperity can have an entitling and crippling effect beyond their initial benefits, then we can begin to mitigate those issues. Just as water/wastewater systems and other infrastructures are taken for granted until they're interrupted, maybe we can remind ourselves of their value, and practice awareness and collaboration, so we don't get rusty and fail along with them.

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