December Conversations

Dec. 14, 2009
Can Specialists Actually Do Good Without a Broad Understanding of Both the Field of Application and the Technology for It?

This article was printed in CONTROL's December 2009 edition.

Generalists vs. Specialists

Allow me to briefly introduce myself. I'm an overeducated electrical engineer specializing in control. I did a stint as a college prof, an oil company engineer, an oil company research engineer, and as a business owner consulting and training in control room operator support technology (primarily alarm management). I happen to be a specialist with a broad general background. For example, I can wire and solder and tune control loops and design advanced controls.

Your column ("Time to Unspecialize," Oct. '09, p. 66) brings up a very important avenue of thought. First of all, can specialists actually do good without a broad understanding of both the field of application and the technology for it? How do we educate technologists—every generalist has a specialty? How do we mentor technologists—with generalists or specialists or both? And lots more.

Let me encourage Control to carry this idea deeper and wider.

Doug Rothenberg, Ph.D.

The Irony of Associations

Everyone taking charge and no one taking responsibility is the ironic mode in which associations, such as ISA, all too often find themselves. When good things happen, everyone shares in the credit, but when bad things happen, no one is accountable. It doesn't have to be that way.  Association consultants advocate a model that's simple in concept, but difficult to apply: The board sets policy, hires an executive to plan and run the association's business, and approves financial and business plans that meet members' needs.

Association volunteers must understand their role to set the stage for appropriate board decision-making. Then, since volunteers have limited time to apply to their positions, they need good and complete information to make the right decisions. Understanding the board role requires continuous education, which is difficult to achieve in an association such as ISA, where there's nearly 50% turnover of directors each year. Directors who don't know the difference between leadership and management are inclined to do what they do in their normal jobs—manage. Instead of setting goals and developing strategies to achieve goals, they engage in management or micro-management.

If Emerson, Honeywell or even the smallest companies in automation consistently experienced losses of 10% to 20% a year and faced a budget shortfall approaching 40% this year, is there any doubt that heads would roll? That is precisely the situation ISA finds itself in, but no one is being held accountable. One-third of the staff was laid off, not because of poor performance, but simply to reduce expenses.

It seems all too likely that ISA is approaching the end of its life. The patient could be cured, but I doubt that the leadership can accept the required changes. The short-term changes would include board training, putting in effect the "CEO" part of the "executive director and CEO" title, and reaching far and wide into the systems and automation community to learn what its market wants from ISA. The long-term cure would require an extensive overhaul of ISA's governance structure. 

Both the short- and long-term solutions would require extensive outside assistance of the type any major business would seek if it were in trouble. This organizational overhaul can't be done by part-time volunteers or led by staff with no turn-around experience. ISA still has over $20 million in reserves. It needs to invest a serious portion of that getting help to save itself. The alternative is to continue losing $1 million to $4 million each year with a predictable result. As Adm. Hyman Rickover was fond of saying, "The first sign of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results."

Glenn Harvey
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