It is the forgotten revolution of the internet era, and yet the industrial sector has made major strides by embracing the transformative impact of digital technologies.

Digital oil fields now allow companies to remotely monitor and manage assets, predicitive analytics is recasting the economics of machine maintanence, and, the mining industry has undergone a big shift towards autonomous mining capabilities like self-driving trucks.

These examples of asset-intensive companies aligning their operational technology (OT) with their information technology (IT) relied on CIOs successfully engaging with engineers and understanding equipment data.

According to Gartner research fellow Kristian Steenstrup,  navigating the cultural and mechanical specifics is essential for any kind of digital transformation of businesses in industries such as oil and gas, mining, power, transportation and manufacturing.

“It’s fundamental in an asset-intensive industry you engage with the rest of the business because unlike developing a customer service system or a financial management system where the IT role is dominant, the IT role is a support act in this,” Steenstrup said during a presentation at the Gartner Symposium on the Gold Coast today.

“Digital transformation cannot be done by the CIO alone, it cannot be done by the IT department alone, you need to reach out and work out how to engage with engineering and operations who have the critical components around building a digital future.”

This convergence is being driven in part by the evolution of OT. Leading vendors like GE, Schneider, Siemens and ABB “are putting a tremendous amount of investment into the industrial internet and your engineers are taking that on,” Streenstrup said.

As a result OT products are starting to look more and more like IT in their architecture but the two systems being run separately, Streenstrup said. He encourages CIOs to take an increased involvement in the software portfolios connected to physical assets. But that’s easier said than done.

Cultural divides

CIOs attempting to bring IT and OT together face significant challenges but the biggest hurdle, Streenstrup said, is the cultural differences between engineering and IT.

Engineers take reliability and safety incredibly seriously – people die when things go wrong in their world. And when it comes to problem-solving they look at what’s been done before, modify it and optimise it for the current situation and then lock it down, walk away and don’t touch it.

“There’s an inherent contradiction in that because now a lot of operational technology that they want to have is stable, safe and reliable is built on the most unstable software platforms ever designed,” Streenstrup said.

The best way to bring groups together and bridge the cultural divide is to identify a common benefit for the company, Streenstrup said. Potential benefits include reducing technology costs (number of software licenses, support staff requirements) reducing risk (exposure to cybersecurity attacks), agility and speed (moving more quickly than competitors) and unlocking the benefits of equipment data (“the big holy grail”).

“If you can unlock the value in that equipment data, safely and reliably, now you get much better visibility into the plant or the machinery is doing,” Streenstrup said.

“The two highlights there are operational efficiency, how much material energy or materials do you put in to get a benefit and also reliability – how do we know what the machine is doing so we can get in there before it fails?”

Streenstrup also recommends CIOs “respect, understand and retain cultural differences” and familiarise themselves with what vendors like GE are doing.

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