August 2008

A marriage made in automation IT

By Scott Sommer

The state of the automation and IT professions is geeks and nerds are on a collision course. Companies are becoming lean in operations. Duplicate functions and departments are prime targets. With so many similarities in function, maintaining separate functions is not cost effective from a project perspective or an ongoing operations perspective. Merging IT and automation will strengthen both types of professionals.

But as the two worlds meld into a homogeneous stew of virtual networks, .NET applications, and firewall configurations, a lot of housekeeping must occur. Now in IT, automated processes, such as updates to virus patterns, occur daily. In automation, little or no automated updates will be allowed, and users must follow change control procedures. IT tolerates frequent outages for upgrades and system maintenance. Automation is a 24/7 operation. Outages are infrequent and planned for months in advance. IT has traditionally been an 8-to-5 job, with a centralized help desk after hours and the ability to troubleshoot and repair from a remote location. Automation requires 24/7 coverage, with mission-critical applications. It requires support and troubleshooting at the site. IT works in minutes, hours, and days. Automation works in milliseconds, seconds, and minutes.

The marriage between IT and automation can result in a win-win situation. But everyone needs to remember even though they work with separate specialties, they are under one management. They will need to share the burden of support and unify procedures and be prepared to learn new tricks. Be sure to check all egos at the door, and develop a department game plan. Do a departmental self-assessment. Set goals that serve the entire organization, and be customer-centric.

Take a look at a few marriages to see how your organization fits in.

Marriage by decree

In the merging of IT and automation by decree, there is little or no planning involved, and the organization feels lost just after the merger. Combined departments have to feel their way through the new process. There is a lot of pain at the beginning, but eventually everyone finds their way. Yet there still exists a great degree of specialization and division, but combined departments are stronger than they were separately.

In a marriage by decree, company management says you will do this. In this scenario, management determines what the merger looks like. Someone out of IT becomes leader out of a newly merged department. Management says, "Here's who we'll keep, and here's your charter and how you'll do it." So you are creating a completely new service organization: IT Automation. The old IT department and the old automation department no longer exist.

Here a company realizes there is duplication of effort in IT and automation-an overlap between the two because of common hardware and software platforms, the perception is they are identical, and too many people are chasing the same service. To streamline this organization, they feel one combined department is more efficient than two. So management decides to create its own streamlined version of IT Automation as a cost-cutting necessity.

This company streamlines all operations, decides who will be reassigned or laid off, and lets employees figure out how to get the job done. They have no direction, and there is no natural progression and evolution.

Keeping a distance

In this type of marriage between IT and automation, the organization understands the congruency between IT and automation but refuses to merge the functions. They draw explicit lines, and there is no question about which department owns which systems. IT expects automation to follow standards but offers no assistance. The organization operates status quo, and each group has a stockpile of similar application licenses, similar hardware spares, and similar data closets.

There is synergy but there is also a hard division between IT and automation. There is no progression toward using common resources or spare parts or new equipment ordering or standardization on equipment they have. It remains two complete departments, and they do not do anything to help bring the two sides together.

The result is current inefficiencies remain. There are duplicate spare parts, inventories, duplication of license purchasing. A site can get a site-wide Microsoft Windows license, but if IT bought their own and automation bought their own license, there is still duplication of cost. One of the more expensive parts of pharmaceutical plants is the real estate for these data centers. If you have duplicate plants, one for IT and one for automation, you use more real estate, which translates to more capital dollars.

Just right

In a happy union between automation and IT, the organization has a plan for department mergers. They solicit input from all groups as to how to structure the combined force. People, tools, applications, and procedures are made common and available to all involved. Cross-training smoothes out the weaknesses in the support structure. The department as a whole takes shared ownership of shop-floor and server-room support. As a result, the workforce is continually challenged and interested.

This is where the organization sees the overlap between IT and automation functions and spends the time to plan how to merge the two. Rather than a marriage by decree, where they think there is overlap and make decisions on how many people they need based on their perceptions, management consults the two groups involved. They allow the people who will have to live under the new department to plan how it will function. What people, skills, hardware do we need? What is our service model? How will we meet the different needs of IT customers, such as human resources and payroll, versus those in manufacturing automation, who are trying to operate the plant on a second-by-second basis?

There is coordinated effort to train people. How can we make the overall structure more efficient? Where can we standardize? The result is the most efficient plant support for all computerized functions. If there is a problem at your desktop with MS Word or a problem on the plant floor, there is one number to call to get support. They will route your call to the appropriate person so you will not have to wonder, is this an IT or automation problem? Whose network is that? Anything that is computerized goes to a single number.

Five years, still together

In the long-term, the couple who plan and coordinate together can make it work. The results mean lower costs, little or no third-party support groups, a single management team, separate IT and automation functions carried out by multiple sub-teams, and a one-stop shop for IT and automation support. The ultimate result is automation equipment rooms and IT data centers combined under one support structure and total integration of hardware and software spares, license, and application management.


Scott Sommer, P.E., CAP, is an automation technology manager with Jacobs Engineering Group in Conshohocken, Penn.