Friday, March 23, 2012

IT and OT - Shall the Twain Never Meet?

Yesterday I learned a new term in a conversation with Gartner: “Operations Technology," or “OT.” Operations Technology, they tell us, is separate from “IT,” which has the business technology focus. Having frustratingly observed this gap in the past, I found it particularly interesting to see that finally it is being recognized, although the recognition could instead work against closing the gap, forcing categorization one way or the other.

When I first graduated in computer science and began working, I worked at Shell Oil Company, along with the other dinosaurs. There were two totally separate groups, “business computing” and “technical computing.” The business side handled the mundane COBOL programs for accounting and such as well as the infamous midnight data uploads. We on the technical side focused on all the fun stuff that impacted the actual core business of an integrated oil company. I made sure I never admitted to having any knowledge of COBOL, lest I be drawn to the dark side. My focus and passion for computer graphics (in the days when you had to write to the pixel on/off level) led me to develop graphics for 3D reservoir simulation, engineering design, and manufacturing plant simulation.

As I moved on in my career, I observed from both sides the lack of mutual respect for the activities and technology requirements on the other side of the divide. I also discovered that operations couldn’t make the best decisions without a view of the market and the impact of those decisions on the overall well-being of the company. I think the hype wave of re-engineering in the late 80’s recognized this, but the IT department usually did not touch anything on the operations side, and did not want to deal with systems that include process control, complex mathematical optimizers and simulators. So the re-engineering efforts, moving on to BPM, pretended that there was nothing beyond the head office.

It was on this OT side that I began to contemplate how to put in the hands of the engineers a tool that would allow them to get the data they needed for their various models without programming. After all, they were not programmers, and it was impossible to get the programmers to leave what the engineers called the “Ivory Tower” to help out. (That turned out to be the origin of Enterprise EnablerÒ, an Agile Integration platform that naturally bridges the gap between IT and OT).

Apart from some ad hoc custom programming to feed the likes of SAP, there has been little done to bridge the gap. In my humble opinion,this is largely due to two factors. First, the Big Consultants rarely had the depth of knowledge to delve into this type of industry-specific systems and requirements. Second, the Big Integration products were designed as either ETL or EAI, neither of which alone could handle the needs of operations. Of course, integration solutions that bridge IT and OT would likely be funded by both, and there aren’t many people who are in the position to buy that understand enough technology or care enough to make it happen.

It’s much safer to get excited about Big Data and figure out some way that BD can be important. Forget closing the gap between IT and OT. That sounds too hard. But if your competitors decide to bridge the gap, you will definitely lose the edge!

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