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Control Report with Jim Montague: Don't say it—again

May 12, 2021
Technology loads the optimization gun, but talk pulls the trigger.

Sorry for the broken-record routine. Yet again, another story about technical innovations and advances has revealed the obvious requirement that engineers, managers, operators and everyone else on or near the plant-floor must talk to each other more to achieve the gains that technology can only promise.

Following the latest series of informative and enlightening interviews for this issue's cover story, "Prepare for data analytics" (p. 28), it once again became clear that all the digitalization, sophisticated software, powerful microprocessors, pervasive Internet and, in this case, data analytics and model building will stop short. They'll sputter and fall silent before accomplishing anything if humans don't talk about applying new capabilities and genuinely revamp their culture and work habits. So scary.

Despite the obvious need for talk and human interaction, and how to approach and practice it, I continue to primarily hear about technical leaps, and not much practical advice about how to get users to understand and accept them. Maybe it's because it seems like conversation doesn't pay the bills, until we realize that discussion among team members is exactly what's needed to apply data analytics, models and their recommendations in real-world operations, optimize processes, and increase profitability—which was the stated goal of all of these efforts in the first place.

Instead, it seems like everyone continues to seek the magic bullet, even if it's an obvious sham that doesn't work. Just the promise of what's easier is more attractive than the threat of doing what's appropriate though maybe slightly difficult. Why? Because the black box will do it, and we don't have to talk to each other. Duh. It's been awhile, but more than one technical professional has told me, "I didn't get into engineering to talk to people."

It's often said that love or money makes the world go round, I forget which. However, I think it may be something far more powerful—avoiding discomfort, slight embarrassment, ideas that contradict old prejudices, or even a remote chance of appearing to be uncool.

How powerful are these forces? Well, even though talk is crucial to the success of every technology I research and write about, I think the last story I did that was focused on collaboration itself was about 15 years ago. And, even though I've repeatedly brought up the need to openly discuss vital issues, I can almost feel the collective desire of the community that I cover to shut up about it. Sorry, I guess it's also not the right time to mention that it's a good idea to wear facemasks and get vaccinated.

I think this situation is like the well-known idea that many people fear public speaking more than dying. It's similar to anti-smoking commercials that make smokers want to light up. It's also like alcohol, narcotics, refined carbohydrates or whatever releases the right brain chemicals. I'm no expert, but when I'm on deadline and slightly stressed, like right now, I cope with a bag of Doritos. When I'm not, I celebrate with a bag of Doritos or whatever's edible that isn't nailed down. I'm sure you get the idea.

Responsible journalists are supposed to illuminate their subjects and turn the lights on topics that need to be revealed. However, what do you do when the subject stays invisible (even though it's been repeatedly identified as a profound problem) and your community keeps turning off the light? The silence of any group can be pretty loud once you have some hidden-in-plain-sight evidence and are attuned to it. That's real power.

So what to do? Well, keep talking, don't stop, and keep bringing it up. It's doesn't matter if it's data analytics, cybersecurity or any other issue. Even powerful forces can be confronted by what's right, fair and necessary. Just keep chipping away, eroding, corroding and cavitating until the lights stay on. Take it from a professional pest, you will be surprised at how much progress you can make, and how good you and your community can feel. You may also get nailed up somewhere or the equivalent. Good luck.

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control.