IT and OT; Helping or Hindering Collaboration?

By Eric Cosman

Technology Trends

Getting Past the Jargon to Focus on the Common Vision

For several years it has been common to use the terms “Information Technology (IT)” and “Operations Technology (OT)” to distinguish between the traditional application of technology to automating business processes and the use of similar technologies to operations and industrial facilities and processes. While these abbreviations make for simple copy by pundits, analysts, and industry observers, neither are precisely defined. Those who work in the technology-related industries are familiar with the tendency to speak in a form of shorthand that involves liberal use of abbreviations, acronyms, and arcane terminology. Industry acceptance of this jargon has followed the now-familiar trajectory of coming into common use without the benefit of precise definitions or distinctions. It is reasonable to assume that if there were to be a poll of typical stakeholders to ask them the meaning of the IT and OT terms, it would receive a wide variety of responses. 

IT OT Collaboration

It is common to define Operational Technology as the hardware and software dedicated to detecting or causing changes in physical processes through direct monitoring or control of physical equipment, including machines, robots, production lines, valves, pumps, and other elements of production. It is unclear whether the term also includes the equipment itself, often referred to as the equipment under control. In the case of Information Technology, the term describes more than scope since IT is a recognized technical discipline. This is what leads to the arguments that we have all heard or participated in. How can “IT” be applied to Operations systems?

Of course, there are implications of the use of shorthand and jargon. While this may be seen as efficient by those familiar with the subject, it can lead to a certain level of ambiguity and maybe even confusion for others. In most cases, this may or may not be a significant problem, depending on your perspective and objectives. In the case of the use of IT and OT, the consequences may be more serious. 

While most would agree that there is convergence in the sense of using common technology in both industrial and business domains, this trend has existed for decades, going back to the early introduction of common operating systems and networks as part of industrial automation systems. Over those decades there has been a lively debate about the relationship between typical business information systems and those employed in Operations. The topic arises in some form in virtually every industry forum, user group meeting, or symposium. Often the debate addresses what is the “best” organizational model for such a relationship. Options include:

•    Cooperative separation
•    Cooperative integration
•    IT manages OT except for real-time machine and process controls
•    New hybrid groups

Any attempt to define the single best model is almost certainly doomed to failure for the simple reason that one model will never fit the needs of all companies and situations. For each of the options above, there is some degree of collaboration or cooperation required between different disciplines. The imprecise use of terms such as OT and IT complicate this and may in fact drive more conflict between these two domains that have so much in common.

The Business Imperative

The importance – even imperative – of integrating the entire business, including product design, procurement, supply chain management, production, maintenance, and outbound logistics has been known in industry for a long time. Computer Integrated Manufacturing has been a “thing” since the 1970s. In those early days, some large companies implemented a small number of projects, but the systems and technology at that time were cumbersome, expensive, and unreliable. Much of this was a result of the fact that it was difficult to connect and share information between components from different suppliers using different communications protocols. Even when common protocols become more generally available the knowledge and expertise in their use was often confined to the engineering functions. Typical applications were limited to Operations, allowing the IT functions to ignore much of this activity. After all, they had more than enough on their hands dealing with the needs of “back office” systems and trends such as electronic commerce and supply chain optimization.

This is clearly no longer possible. Optimization of business processes reaches deeply into Operations and of course, we have all seen that the risks associated with inadequate cybersecurity are not confined by organizational or business process boundaries. Common technology for communications and information processing means that threats and vulnerabilities are also common. The approach of defining IT and OT as clearly separated domains and associated disciplines is simply no longer tenable. If we feel that we must use convenient buzzwords, abbreviations, and shorthand we must switch from oversimplifications like “IT vs. OT” to emphasizing the need for full integration and collaboration. Given that the underlying technology is largely shared (i.e., “IT”), we should start to speak in terms of Operations IT and Back Office or Business IT.

This is far more than a simple change of terms. There are subtle but important implications related to training and skills development, organizational models, and many other areas. This encompasses what is often – perhaps over simplistically – described as “culture change.” There are no simple solutions. Changing organizational models without thinking of how to integrate skills and experience and clearly define the common mission will only lead to sometimes conflicting groups within a single department. There have been several examples of where this is has happened. Assigning responsibility and accountability based solely on the characteristics of the technology also does not work. Assuming that the same IT experts can handle the application of communication and processing technology (i.e., networks and servers) in all domains makes as much sense as assuming that someone who understands electricity can design and support everything from home appliances and consumer products to high voltage distribution systems.

Let us just accept the fact that knowledge, expertise, and experience with these technologies exist in multiple domains and focus on how we can achieve collaboration between experts who understand the domain-specific requirements, expectations, and constraints. In the course of doing so, we should avoid the seductively simple shorthand and jargon such as “IT vs. OT.”

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