July/August 2012
Talk to Me

Old dogs and new dogs

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

The addition of new people to the automation profession provides a great opportunity to avoid "reinventing the wheel," and with the synergy between the new dogs and old dogs-the experienced automation professionals-new ideas are created that fuel innovation. The new dogs can teach the old dogs new tricks, and the old dogs can teach the new dogs old tricks! There are great advantages to pairing experienced and novice together.

It can be counterproductive to immediately put new automation people on projects by themselves. I recently heard an experienced automation engineer describing the dark side of this situation: "Management does not give us enough time to work with the new young engineers, and they are making mistakes that we learned to avoid 15 years ago." Young automation people just out of college or technical schools have learned the "latest and greatest," but they lack the know-how and activity knowledge gained with years of experience. Know-how and activity knowledge are the practical understanding of how to get something done, as opposed to "know-what" (facts) or "know-why" (science). Know-how is not obvious, explicit knowledge, and it is often difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalization. It is best experienced in the field with an accomplished mentor as a guide.

Beyond avoiding old mistakes, there is the potential for tremendous synergy resulting from this combination if the automation people involved have time to work together as a team. Synergy is defined as two or more things functioning together to produce a superior result not independently obtainable. Consider the potential, where knowledge of new methods and technology are combined with a deep and intimate understanding of the plant's automation and physical processes.

It is important for the people involved to develop a rapport and get to know each other as the first step to developing mutual respect. Periodically, companies may have sophisticated management, team building, and relationship programs for this purpose, but you don't have to have elaborate programs to develop a good working relationship with someone new. Most importantly, you should have a positive, expectant attitude and put forth effort to start the process whether you are the old dog or the new dog. Remember, the person you are talking to, from their perspective, is the most important person in the world, and I have found magic questions to help you build rapport. Ask where he grew up, or how she ended up in this location. Ask questions about family and her job: Do you have family in the area? How do you define your job here? These simple questions-and variations on them-will open almost anyone up and show that you are interested in them personally. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

The value of getting to know each other is underrated. Both experienced and new people need to listen to and respect each other. Someone once reminded me that our anatomy is designed for listening, which is why we have one mouth and two ears. "Listen twice as much as you talk" is good advice, but difficult to follow. An open, sharing attitude is essential for this to be effective, and management would ideally provide time for experienced automation people to mentor the newcomers so everyone can work together.

Sharing, learning, and developing a rapport with people is valuable throughout everything we do-no matter how young, old, new, or experienced we may be. Look for key networking events to practice these skills, such as at ISA Automation Week 24-27 September 2012 at the Orange County Convention Center, Orlando, Fla. The opening keynote speaker is Greg Hale, chief safety officer and vice president, Worldwide Standards and Auditing, with Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, who has some useful insights about the application of technology for safety.