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The IT/OT divide: Why OT is from Mars and IT is from Venus

A data scientist or IT specialist will look at a glass and wonder whether it’s half full or half empty. An operational technology engineer will wonder how the water got there in the first place.

The divide between IT and OT is one of the major challenges in digital transformation. It sounds odd, but most industrial companies don’t have just one technology department; they have two. The first department is OT, which is responsible for managing the machines and critical systems that produce products. The second is IT, which manages things such as sales tracking, customer management and analytics.

The IT/OT department conflict

IT and OT departments often don’t speak, and when they do they often don’t get along. IT generally complains that OT tends to push away their suggestions. OT generally complains that IT wants to impose technology choices that could ultimately hurt productivity. OT says that they are the department that keeps companies running. IT says they are the department that keeps companies profitable.

Why the conflict? These two departments have very different ways of looking at the world. To IT, security means firewalls and phishing defenses. To OT, security measures include fire extinguishers and razor wire. Move fast and break things was — for a while — an ideal for IT. For OT, it’s their worst nightmare. IT generally replaces equipment every three to four years. OT engineers expect to get three to four decades out of new product purchases. Education and background also play a role. While IT executives often come out of computer science departments, OT is staffed with chemical and mechanical engineers.

This difference in perspective extends to their contrasting relationship to data. To an OT engineer, data from an IoT sensor — or set of sensors — is a very fluid and very live manifestation of a process taking place somewhere. When OT engineers look at trend lines on a screen, they are really thinking about the physics behind the data. Why did a temperature reading in a fermentation chamber drop from 90.5 degrees Fahrenheit to 88.3 degrees Fahrenheit over a 15 second interval? Was it caused by an unanticipated change in the input materials, a mechanical failure or an unexpected change in ambient temperature? And how do OT engineers get the temperature back to normal?

Dealing with the IT/OT divide

With that perspective, you can start to better understand why these two departments frequently don’t see eye to eye. OT engineers might obsess over minute process steps in an effort to eke out gains in efficiency and productivity. It’s their job, and industrial finessing like this can save companies millions of dollars a year. However, IT generally has to play the bad cop role and ask whether these improvements might have the unanticipated aftereffect of increasing maintenance costs and capital replacement cycles.

In some cases, IT might unveil a brilliant plan to reduce costs by having everyone save their data to a centralized data lake in the cloud. This time, OT gets to be the critic; they might note that the time, money and extra coding required to get that data back out of the lake will far outweigh the benefits. Worse, the lack of immediate access to information will mean that the company will — for the most part — be flying blind.

IT will tell you all data is significant so save everything. OT will tell you data is important only when it changes. Just save the exceptions.

Final thoughts

Can the two get along? Of course. In fact, you can argue that digital transformation ultimately revolves around bringing these complimentary skills and perspectives together for the greater good. After all, both IT and OT want to save money, utilize resources more efficiently and experience the thrill of achieving a meaningful breakthrough on a problem that’s been alluding the team for a while.

Just don’t expect them to start off on the same wavelength.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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