November/December 2010

Knowledge based systems: Silver bullet or false security

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

Many product companies believe extracting knowledge from experienced people and incorporating it into automation systems is a silver bullet for dealing with the skills crisis. While this is valuable technology, it is just one of the tools bridging us to the future and is not the single silver bullet to solve the skills crisis.

The skills crisis has been discussed at virtually every conference and forum I have attended over the last two years. The issue is complex and touches every geographic area of the world. The developed countries have aging workforces that are retiring and a lack of interest on the part of young people to enter the automation profession. Developing countries are starting from a low base of experienced people. I have been told by people from all areas of the world that the automation field is not attractive to young people, and this further complicates the problem. ISA, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the Automation Federation, and other groups are taking on the challenge to attract young people to the automation profession.

Capturing the knowledge of experienced people into automation systems is a sound idea, but taken to an extreme, I think this could be limiting. Thinking about primarily relying on knowledge based systems, I believe there is an embedded assumption that industry and production technology will remain static, therefore capturing existing knowledge will solve the problem. However, industrial technology certainly will not remain static and will need educated people that can solve problems and create new automation solutions. I suggest, in addition to advanced systems, we need to provide superior training and mentoring.

There are a number of good places for education including technical schools, colleges, universities, vendor training, industry associations, and ISA. Technology can also be used to improve training. A good example of using technology is the use of virtual reality such as the Invensys EYESIM ( that puts a student into a virtual plant for training.

New automation people can learn a great deal about how to think and attack problems from experienced automaton professionals. Rather than early retiring experienced people, and in many cases hiring them back as consultants to solve specific problems, it would be more productive to use them as mentors and coaches for new people. They can instruct new people on specific technical methods and more importantly how to analyze problems and application challenges.

I was impressed with the advice from Terry Jones, KYAK founder and former chief executive of, who noted last year that efficient teams are a balance of experienced people with "old world" knowledge and new people with youthful exuberance. The "old dogs" will learn new tricks, and "new dogs" will learn old tricks to create successful innovations. In addition, the experienced people will help the new ones avoid old mistakes. Those of us that have been around the industry for some time have seen companies lay off experienced people based on economics and the new "cheaper" people make "old" errors that cost the company money. No one accounts for the loss of profits later due to lack of experience. The knowledge and know-how of experienced people is extremely valuable, but the real multiplier is the combined creativity of new and existing people working together that can yield high results. One issue that needs to be solved in an organization for this to work is the fear that existing people have-if they educate the new person they will loose their job. Taking this approach requires looking at the future value of an investment made in people.

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