This article was printed in CONTROL's December 2009 edition.
I'm fairly easily impressed. I go out into the world—in this case, the process control and automation community—and I gather information from its many creative inhabitants, boil it a bit and try to distribute it to other members of the same community, who will hopefully find it useful. On this journey, I always run across folks who have come up with interesting ways to manage and improve their technologies. They're usually pleased to solve problems in their own organization, but I hope that retelling their stories encourages others struggling in similar trenches elsewhere. Frankly, I think their optimism and persistence is helpful and precious way beyond simply solving a few technical difficulties. As Marley's ghost says in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, "Any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness."
However, there's a big, fat fly in this otherwise happy ointment.
How do you get useful information to people who don't read your publication, don't visit your website, don't listen to your podcasts and don't watch your videos? If you're a process control engineer, how do you reach potential end users and clients who don't know how your application, facility or company might be helpful to them? Just as crucial, how can you reach people in your own organization who don't know what you do? Similarly, if you're a supplier, how do you make potential (and even existing) customers aware of your solutions? I frequently hear about end users saying to longtime suppliers, "I didn't know you did that!" Likewise, process safety advocates often mull how to preach beyond the choir.
In short, how can you communicate if no avenue exists? Ignorance and prejudice are so powerful because they're passive—they don't require any effort to be devastatingly destructive. Remember the boy and girl who travel with the Ghost of Christmas Present?
When I worked for weekly newspapers around Chicago, I often wondered how to find the stories I might be missing and how to find and reach potential sources and readers if they weren't already reading my newspaper and/or didn't speak or read English anyway. I realized it was a probably similar to being mute, as well as deaf and blind.
Of course, there's only one real answer to these questions. People who don't know you and are otherwise uninvolved in the community aren't likely to come to you. Consequently, those who are involved must find and connect with them. You just have to take a few unconventional paths. As Mark Twain says in Innocents Abroad, "Travel is fatal to prejudice."
With the newspapers, I first spent a lot of time going through phone books. I used to find small businesses to cover in the Yellow Pages. However, the best way was and still is for me to physically go out into whatever community I'm covering and talk to as many people as possible in as many places as possible. To cover geographically scattered and professionally defined groups located nationally and worldwide, I've had to rely more on the phone, but I still try to call many people who might be readers as well as sources.
And I'm pleased to say that my results over the years have been pretty good. Among professional groups, I usually find every fifth or sixth person has some beneficial observations or advice for his or her colleagues. Besides providing content for stories, good interview subjects usually teach me something I hadn't expected, and so I try to get their lessons across to readers whenever possible.
So, is there any easy way to open those communication lines? Sorry. Persistence and slow chipping away are still the only ways to open pathways to community members who might otherwise be cut off and uninvolved. I know that, but a few periodic reminders can be helpful, too. As Marley says, "The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!" You go, Jacob.