The way forward: Integrating IT and operations

“People in operations see a ton of opportunities,” said Irani-Famili, who has worked in the energy sector for the best part of a decade. For the problems they encounter on a daily basis, the OT dreams of potential cures. For example, if there is a power outage, the concerned supervisors can automatically receive notifications wherever they are. Or staff availability data can flow into company systems so supervisors and managers can more easily assign projects or transfers.

“And then they go and talk to IT, and the IT response would be ‘Impossible. It could be a violation of every security protocol,'” according to Irani-Famili. Operations found solutions to problems. IT sees cybersecurity, integration, and risk in support. “But from an operational perspective, what they see is IT red tape, IT isn’t cooperating, or IT isn’t playing.”

It is easy to describe IT and OT as different departments with different purposes and very different cultures. They are often managed independently of organizations and treated as separate groups that take care of specific problems and use their own protocols. But that will result in inefficient, expensive setups that fail to promote innovation and standardization.

As global economies are gaining steam after nearly collapsing amid the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, pressure continues to improve productivity, innovation, and agility. Companies need to improve business speed by digitizing processes and using the internet of things and artificial intelligence (AI) to capture action insights from large data sets.

To survive such digital transformation in industries that rely heavily on physical assets-manufacturing, oil and gas, transportation, energy, and utilities-organizations need to integrate IT and OT. into a seamless organization that connects systems on both sides.

“The IT/OT merger is inevitable,” said Fay Cranmer, senior managing director of natural resources practice at Accenture and former chief information officer of mining company Rio Tinto. “This is the only way to have a complete digital revolution, especially in the heavy industry gap.”

But there are big challenges to overcome. Many industrial environments are characterized by legacy equipment, time-honored, manual processes, and resistance to change — from the two business sections, OT and IT. Often the attitude is, only the OT knows how to make the products and services we can provide for the company.

In contrast, IT people always think they only know how to help modernize OT departments, by enabling systems that allow for the benefits of AI, internet of things, and other digital technologies. Real collaboration is needed, but the complexity of new technology and infrastructure that integrates legacy machines raises questions about investment, leadership, and management.

Bala Arunachalam, an oil and gas executive for more than 30 years, says the specific characteristics of the industry are a big factor. “This industry is a legacy industry. For them to move into the technological space, to take advantage of the opportunity that is in front of them, it’s a struggle.”

As physical assets, whether in the factory or outside the field, become digital through internet-of-things technology; as applications, data storage, and data processing move to the cloud; and while employees remained in their home offices for more than a year in the pandemic, any known boundaries between the OT and the rest of the business collapsed. “The challenge is that we have to bring the data across all frontiers,” Cranmer said. The biggest barriers, he said, are organizational and cultural. “The technology part is much more easily overcome than the human part.”

The good news is that there are guidelines that organizations can follow to achieve IT/OT integration that is critical for successful digital transformation initiatives.

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