IT/OT convergence is one of the popular buzzwords thrown around by most manufacturers as part of their digital transformation journey. When the phrase is used, most people think it just means the connection of operational technology (OT) with information technology (IT), or more casually: connecting the shop floor with the business. But convergence is much more than just integrating a few disparate systems together. IT/OT convergence deals with getting two totally different business functions to work together in a cohesive manner to transform the way the company operates.
As a result, IT/OT convergence is as much about change management as it is connectivity. This means the breaking down of silos within an organization and the deliberate creation of cross-functional teams. It means training multiple stakeholders on how to physically connect and leverage data across an organization. This article focuses on IT/OT convergence from a business perspective.
Digital transformation focuses on how manufacturers leverage data and information they already produce but may not consume. Rather than a single project or collection of disparate efforts, digital transformation should be considered a strategy that aligns with overall business objectives. At a high level, the strategy should identify what data is available, what value it provides, and, most importantly, how it could be used as a competitive advantage. The result is a digital-driven company.
There are several aspects that should be considered as part of a digital strategy. The first is to understand how a business operates and what intelligence exists as part of its operation, including both systems and people. This will reveal what data is produced, how it is used, and how it could be used. The second is to consider how to connect business intelligence using a common technology, rather than through systems or solutions. This will help define the technical requirements of the strategy. A third aspect is to establish data governance to provide oversight, while allowing for innovation that will surely occur.
Culture plays a critical role in IT/OT convergence as it affects how different teams within an organization interact and collaborate with each other. A positive culture can encourage effective communication, collaboration, and problem solving. These are all essential to the successful integration of two very different business functions. Everyone in an organization must exhibit a culture of convergence. If not, the strategy will likely fail. Much like safety is a culture, or reliability is a culture, convergence must be a culture, too. People will think and act in terms of convergence. Decisions will be made based on the convergence strategy, and so it’s important that all stakeholders buy in to this new direction. But this behavior often requires a change of culture.
One of the best ways to execute the strategy is to create a cross-functional team that develops the standards and governance. In many organizations, it is common to have competing priorities between departments. For example, operations is tasked with production while maintenance is tasked with executing a reliability strategy. This may mean manufacturing equipment is removed from service, which will impact production. Similarly, in order to maintain secure systems, IT will make changes to network infrastructure, which could also impact production. These activities often lead to friction within an organization.
The creation of the cross-functional team will result in the breaking down of both technical and cultural silos and alignment on business objectives. In other words, some degree of convergence will inherently arise. One of the outcomes of this team will be alignment on how to configure networks, when maintenance is performed, and how to maximize production. Through their interactions, people will better understand how the individual groups operate and what is important to them.
The cross-functional team will also be responsible for training other people. Operations and maintenance should understand how networks are configured. There are best practices when it comes to connectivity and segmentation. One outcome of digital transformation is
that there will be many more devices connected to a network. It is critical to minimize the traffic and ensure the network operates efficiently.
Conversely, people in leadership and IT should understand the manufacturing process and the systems that are used. Understanding how systems interact and how the data in manufacturing is different than business data is critical. Consideration should be given to manufacturing systems and data when making security decisions. A great outcome is that IT people will understand OT systems and OT people will understand IT systems. No longer will operations chain hardware together in a mishmash of networks. IT will not make network changes without consideration of the operational systems. The two will work together more harmoniously.
As stated at the beginning, this article focuses on business objectives and strategy for IT/OT convergence. It is equally important to focus on the technical aspects of convergence. This is sometimes referred to as adding context to data. Operations, maintenance, quality, and IT data will no longer be viewed as isolated sets of data. When context is provided, data sets move past operational and tactical information to an opportunity for strategy and creativity in solution seeking. This is where the true value of IT/OT convergence will be realized. It is a culture change. It is shared knowledge and experience. It is a deliberate transformation within a business.