Autonomous Operations Challenges in the Face of Corporate Culture

Author photo: Mark Sen Gupta
By Mark Sen Gupta

Keywords: Autonomous Operations, AI, Culture, Organizational Change Management, Technology, APC, Operations, Maintenance, People, Culture, Work, Digital Transformation, Workforce, BASF, Dow, ExxonMobil, Georgia-Pacific, ARC Advisory Group.


Autonomous Operations Challenges

Advances in technology outpace the human capacity to handle change. Understandably, humans resist change and resist harder when faced with constant change. However, companies must change and adapt to a dynamically changing marketplace. To do that, companies must employ technologies that enable quicker, more accurate decisions while developing their workforce to best leverage the gains those technologies offer. What can companies do to accommodate the needs of their employees and the need to deploy innovative technologies? At the 2024 ARC Industry Forum in Orlando, ARC Advisory Group hosted a panel session with autonomous operations as a backdrop to discuss the challenges in addressing the people aspect of technology deployment. The panel discussion provided a real-life perspective on the challenges and potential rewards of implementing successful autonomous operations and digital transformation strategies from some of the leading industrial companies engaged in these efforts. Panelists included:

  • Tricia Bordner: technology center director at Dow

  • Michael Carroll: vice president of innovation at Georgia-Pacific

  • Keith Dicharry: NA director, automation controls, & electrical – principal expert at BASF

  • Michael Hotaling: operations excellence digital manager with ExxonMobil

Sharing from Experience

In response to a prompt to share prior learnings from projects that could have gone better, Michael Hotaling emphasized the importance of managing the change in culture and aligning the activities across the globe to achieve the vision of digitalization. He also distinguishes between autonomous operations at the field level and above the field level. Michael Carroll recounted how they failed to recognize the real problem behind the knowledge loss due to retirements and how distractions affected the productivity of the new employees. He suggested that understanding what happens at the frontline level is crucial for digital transformation. 

Why Top-Down Technology Rollouts Fail

Keith Dicharry shared that any technology rollout should address a pain point or improve a process for the employees in the field, and that most top-down technology rollouts fail. He provided an example of how tablets were rolled out across BASF without much usage. Trisha Bordner shared her experience of leading a successful project that leveraged a strong foundation of processes and cybersecurity safeguards, while also adapting to the unique needs of different sites and businesses. 

Addressing Cultural Barriers

Trisha Bordner stated that the projects that are successful in digital transformation are the ones that have a strong culture in the plant, where people follow the work processes and management systems and have made change before. She suggested assessing the culture before spending money on digital tools. Mr. Hotaling also pointed out the cultural barriers and resistance to change that often hinder the standardization of common business practices. He argued that the organization needs to be aligned on the business objective and the value proposition of the digital solution, and that some changes may require strong support from leadership to overcome the pain points.

Challenges of Managing Workforce and Assets

Carroll and Dicharry discussed the challenges of managing assets and the workforce in a changing environment. In many cases, economic assumptions, operational models, and employee engagement that inform the asset configuration are not aligned with the reality of today’s workforce, which has less experience and tenure than before. 

Lack of adaptive capacity - the ability to perform one’s job with “automaticity” and pay attention to one’s surroundings - leads to more accidents and incidents in the workplace. The panel suggested that the current model of relying on informal processes and functions that depend on the experience of individual workers is not sustainable, and there is a need for more automation and engagement that suits the new workforce. The culture of the organization should match the way the workforce thinks and operates, and the assets should be configured accordingly.

Bordner suggested that digital tools can help bridge the gap between the older and the newer workforce, and the resistance to change will decrease as the digital natives enter the industry. Bordner also acknowledged the need for user-centric design and customization, as well as the potential benefits of data analytics and artificial intelligence. 

Reducing the Cognitive Load of Operators

Hotaling argued that the industrial sector needs to do more to reduce the cognitive load of the operators and provide them with the right information at the right time, using technologies like geolocation and digital reality. Hotaling also criticized the lack of alignment and standardization across the industry, and the tendency to overload the operators with transactional tasks that distract them from core processes. 

Dicharry also warned about the dangers of distraction and information overload that can result from the introduction of digital devices in the field, and proposed possible solutions, such as disabling devices when workers are moving or using voice commands. Dicharry also shared his experience of implementing one of the first control systems, and the resistance he faced from the operators who preferred pneumatic panel boards. He stressed the need for safety and reliability, and the challenges of managing the culture change that digitalization entails. 



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