Finding common ground
Engineers and IT professionals offer input on syncing up for better relationships
By Ellen Fussell Policastro
What do engineers and information systems professionals need from each other to work more effectively together? It’s simple—engineers want “fast, knowledgeable assistance to our problems,” and IT wants “patience, courteousness, and respect for their skill set,” said Gary Pollard, a principal engineer at Areva NP Inc., a world-wide nuclear power and electricity distribution integrator out of Charlotte, N.C.
Gerald Cockrell hears this question among industry professionals quite a bit. As professor and director of the Center for Automation and Systems Integration (CASI) at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, he believes it is true there is a divide between engineers and IT professionals. “It is like the old days when engineering did not want to interface with marketing. I suppose there was a level of distrust that existed between the two functions,” Cockrell said. “The engineers felt like the marketing folks were making in-process changes in a product resulting in increased effort on the part of engineering.” Cockrell sees the same levels of distrust among IT and engineering. But more and more, the two must work as a team. “The field of automation, in many instances, is moving more and more to an IT function,” Cockrell said. “What with the increased use of operator interfaces, networking, and computer technology, the need for sound IT expertise becomes critical.”
Distrust does not seem to be much of a problem at Pollard’s office, where he usually only interacts with IT professionals “when the lease runs out on our computer and they come to change it out,” he said. “Most of the software troubleshooting occurs over the phone with the help desk after initiating an e-mail request. IT contacts us by phone, then as the situation dictates, remotes into our machine and troubleshoots while conversing with us over the phone.” This scenario works well for Pollard and his teammates, but he said the better scenario would be if workplaces had “a mechanism to provide feedback between the engineers in the trenches (as opposed to management) and the IT group to better identify each group’s needs or desires. “IT managers need to be familiar with the field of engineering,” he said. Pollard wants what he believes every engineer wants, “more efficient software, state of the art hardware, and the IT that goes with it.”
Control part of the game
Feeling “they are in charge of a project function” is the dream of engineers from Cockrell’s perspective. “In many instances, they loose this level of control when dealing with IT” because the IT professional will foster this by not communicating effectively with engineering. It is the attitude of “ ‘I know what to do to make this computer work, and you don’t.’ On the other hand, maybe there is lack of respect for the IT function,” he said.
“Engineers want full access to the systems they develop, maintain, and support. This includes application servers, database servers, network switch configurations, and PCs. We also want timely response to IT issues,” said Bryan Burris, lead control systems engineer at Tyson Foods, Inc., in Springdale, Ark.
Burris believes IT’s main goal is to control changes to systems for consistency, such as in servers, terminal servers, and PCs, and to install software monitoring and virus protection on every box. “They want all network hardware to be approved with no unauthorized switches such as a Linksys, in a control panel,” he said.
“In our situation, the controls group resides under the IS umbrella so we have to work together daily. And most of the time it’s okay,” Burris said. But major challenges include “getting access to the systems we need and timely response to issues for those areas we do not have access to.” Another big issue is security. “We have a different view on how security should be handled. We have made some progress but it’s been slow. The good part is having access to people to bounce issues off of,” he said, such as when a server group helps configure terminal services. From a skill-set point of view, “if an engineer has some experience with Microsoft’s server operating systems, active directory, and good Ethernet networking skills, it at least gets people talking the same language and allows the engineer to do some IT tasks,” Burris said. “From an IS point of view, it’s critical they understand more and more servers and networks are the control systems and when downtime happens on servers, PCs, or networks, it can directly impact production.”
Having both groups participate in plant startups is also crucial, Burris said. “This should always be planned for in advance. We have often needed networking and server people on the weekends and during shutdowns.”
In a perfect world, Burris said he would like to see a better understanding in IT about “the unique nature of connected control systems and to work closer with us on security in these networks while still maintaining the connectivity to the business systems.”
See it from IT’s side
Glenn Becnel, productivity and information technology systems manager at Cytec Industries in Westwego, La., is also an industrial engineer by trade. With engineers and IT personnel reporting to him on a daily basis, he has developed some strategic negotiating and technical skills. He believes IT personnel want engineers to involve them early in projects that affect computer systems or require IT support. “IT needs to know what is coming and what is required so their networks and systems can support changes engineers are implementing. And both groups need an on-going avenue of communication to minimize any surprises or disappointments that might develop,” he said.
In his experience, Becnel sees engineers who “expect rock solid, dependable networks and systems to support their projects. Engineers expect responsiveness by the IT groups to meet their requirements. They want to be aware of any changes in the IT domain that will affect them,” he said.
Marc Leroux believes it boils down to respect on both sides. “IT personnel understand the basics of plant engineering but not all the details. Engineers also know a lot of the basics of IT, but they don’t deal with the day-to-day issues of IT policies and security issues. Although security is now becoming an issue at the engineering level,” said Leroux, a manager for ABB’s collaborative production management business. “Respect for the knowledge an IT professional has and their perspective on how it can apply to manufacturing problems will go a long way to breaking down barriers,” he said.
On the other hand, “engineers understand the requirements of real-time data, 24x7 operations, and the value of information exchange,” Leroux said. “The IT organization is used to dealing with business information, which has similar attributes, but different problems. The two aren’t all that far apart.”
Maybe there is some lack of respect for the IT function, Cockrell said. “IT probably would prefer engineering leave them alone to do their thing. They are the experts so don’t interfere,” he said. “At my workplace, we are required to work closely together. Still, there is a certain level of mistrust.” A gradual change will need to occur in perceptions on both sides. “Until both sides agree that it is vital that they work as a team, actual teamwork may be difficult to reach.” Because it is so critical for IT and engineering to work well together in the large petrochemical manufacturing facility where Becnel works, the company has incorporated a senior instrumentation engineer and a process control engineer into the IT group to facilitate the smooth operation of control and measurement systems and data historians at the plant. The move has proven to be “an excellent fit,” he said, because they help with communication between the two groups.
To further improve the exchange of information, Becnel’s group holds quarterly lunch meetings with IT and engineering. The biggest challenge is as change accelerates in the plant daily, “it is harder for both sides to meet the requirements of the other in a timely manner,” he said. “Because of our investment in developing the relationship between engineering and IT, we’ve developed respect and understanding between the two sides, which helps immensely.” It is important for the two groups to develop an open line of communication. “The more that each group understands the other and knows what is going on, the smoother projects are implemented and problems addressed. This has to be maintained over time so trust is continually built,” he said. IT also involves engineering in the strategic plan for IT improvements at the plant. “Most of what we see still falls into the ‘two worlds’ category,” Leroux said. “There is more of a movement to bring them together, but often it is specific individuals that have a coordination role, rather than active participation.”
Leroux said he believes there is still room for improvement. “The collaboration is typically at the infrastructure/security level. This needs to move to the functional level, with the two groups collaborating to bring better business value,” he said.
How can the two groups do this? “Learn the vocabulary the other organization uses,” Leroux said. “Get both sides involved in understanding standards like ISA-95, which can be used to bridge the language barriers. Have members work on cross-functional teams, an IT person on a manufacturing project and an engineer on a business project. Have lunch-and learns that focus on some value-added aspect of a project that is bringing business value to the company. Be willing to listen to potential improvements from a group that tends to think about the problem from a different perspective.
Technology melds expertise
As a control and automation systems engineer who designs control safety systems for offshore platforms at the Gumusut-Kakap, Shell Malaysia deepwater office, David Casada works with IT to implement an equipment support vision of bringing facilities to the experts rather than bringing the experts to their remote facilities. The method uses Shell’s corporate IT WAN infrastructure as a bridge, connecting equipment specialists with Internet access to the unit control panel they provide on Shell’s facilities. Whether troubleshooting a gas compression system, a power generator, a fiscal metering system, or a smart transmitter asset management system, Casada’s team builds secure links from wherever they are in the world directly to their programmable device.
“Typically this involves having two network connections to a programmable system, one for control or safety, and the other for system maintenance,” Casada said. “Our IT group installs certified copies of the programming or diagnostic software on a server within our corporate IT domain on the facilities.”
Access to that server is secure using a virtual private network so the expert can log in and run applications over Windows Terminal Services or Citrix. The applications are preconfigured to connect to the device for remote support, troubleshooting, patching, or even reprogramming. “One challenge is to get strategic agreement with turbo machinery and DCS vendors on the mechanisms and boundary conditions for the support,” he said. “Similarly, we face a challenge with operations,” who prefers to be more hands-on when someone is working on their system. “The less you ask the expert to undertake, the easier it is to gain agreement from both parties,” he said. But the real value is maintaining production and equipment integrity by breaking down the barriers to allow full remote access and support. The real challenge is working with vendors, operators, IT professionals, and management all together to demonstrate reliable, controlled, authorized, integrated, supervised, and effective remote modification to running systems, he said. Cockrell said the best answer to foster respect is to educate both sides as to what it is they actually do. “Perhaps engineering could spend work time in IT and vice versa, to ‘walk in their shoes’ in an effort to foster true understanding,” he said. “I would also imagine that the IT professional may not know what an engineer really does.”
In the future, Becnel would like to see more open systems that help integrate data between systems. “Security is also a paramount consideration for all computer systems, especially those that can make changes in the production process,” he said.
Leroux would like to see the continuation of what is happening today, such as “tighter collaboration between the two groups. It will be important to “leverage the skills of both organizations to provide better quality of service to the entire organization,” he said. “Take advantage of improvements in technology for better solutions that can provide strategic advances to the company without sacrificing the safety and security of the organization.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Fussell Policastro is the associate editor of InTech . Her e-mail is efussell firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corporate program fosters mutual respect
One company is going the extra distance to make sure its teams foster respect for one another. Genentech in South San Francisco refashioned a program from the Stanford Graduate School of Business that focuses on innovative teamwork. “One of our IT groups is partnering with other support groups to deliver more integrated, systemic solutions to their internal clients,” said Steve Kowalski, principal consultant in executive development at Genentech.
“We’ve taken personally oriented material and adapted it for business. We’ve condensed it and focused it squarely on some goals, so each team has come up with goals it is working on. One example might be more effective and transparent communication with clients.”
Three groups—IT, learning and development, and project management—all support the same internal clients (clinical trials and clinical data). The goal is to “align those three groups so there’s more of an integrated service delivery model. In the process of realignment and the coming together of teams, we’re using the concept of innovation and creativity and ingenuity,” Kowalski said.
One of the four tools is called “See Beyond the Apparent.” People in IT, project management, and learning and development, for instance, might come together and explore how they can see beyond the apparent. “They’ll ask themselves and each other, ‘What are we seeing? What are we not seeing?’ Then they’ll apply that to themselves as a team and to specific goals they are working on to improve products and services for clients,” Kowalski said.
One scenario where this tool might be useful is when a team needs to see ahead with foresight but members are still focused on today’s goals, Kowalski said. “IT might be focused on validation of some systems when in fact the integration of a number of systems might be a higher-leverage opportunity,” he said. “If I’m seeing what’s right in front of me and not seeing beyond the apparent, I might not see the synergy between systems.”
Seeing beyond the apparent is a great advantage to the client because the team can more proactively recommend longer-term value solutions. “As we increase the number and complexity of our clinical trials, there are opportunities to improve our systems for managing the data from the trials,” he said. “So there’s a scalability issue, such as accessibility of data across clinical trials.”
The program is designed to activate the creativity of the entire team toward serving and supporting their internal clients more effectively. That involves seeing more broadly, being more nimble and agile, and learning how to ask great questions. “Each tool has a practice, and we changed some of the names of the tools,” Kowalski said. One tool was called “Precise Observation,” which is about being more observant about things we usually take for granted. If you do that, “you can serve clients better,” he said.
Scientists at Genentech have already gone through the program and seen great benefits. The program is delivered in five sessions over three months. “So there’s integration time, which is when people start to see the real value as they work on goals and apply tools to those goals,” Kowalski said. “We’re using a frame of ingenuity and creativity to drive innovation between groups who have not historically seen the connections between their work. But that’s what creativity’s about: making connections between different things. You get more by using creativity as the frame for the work of integrating these teams because you not only get creativity in solutions they generate together for clients, but you also get creativity in the way they build their new working relationships.”