Whether you’re a technologist within your company or an operational or business leader, you’re probably aware of several significant technology trends, including the internet of things (IoT). Often, IoT is described as a massive network of connected devices and sensors that transmit data via wireless and wired networks.
However, in enterprise and industrial environments, IoT can be viewed as the convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) – or where the digital world meets the physical world. Most people know what IT is, but not as many are familiar with the term OT; it’s important to understand what OT is and why it’s converging with IT because this convergence creates both opportunities and challenges for businesses.
So, What is Operational Technology (OT)?
When most people think about the technology within their company, they think only about information technology (IT). The reality is that enterprise technology also includes operational technology (OT), especially in industrial firms. In fact, OT is often even more mission-critical than IT. OT incorporates all the physical infrastructure that underlies many businesses, including power plants, production lines, vehicles, locomotive and aircraft engines, HVAC equipment, oil & gas rig equipment, and many others. This infrastructure is made up of complex machinery and is increasingly being connected to networks.
Operational technology is relevant for most companies, but especially those in industrial sectors like manufacturing, oil & gas, utilities, service & repair, medical devices & healthcare, and real estate. These industries have physical assets residing in the real world (as opposed to the digital or virtual world) that need monitoring, maintaining, repairing, and optimizing.
Why are IT and OT Converging?
There are two primary drivers for IT/OT convergence: fundamental shifts in technology and operational business demands.
On the technology front, these fundamental shifts in core technology have changed the foundation on which all IT initiatives are constructed:
- Mobility: the advancement of wireless networking, proliferation of smartphones and tablets, and emergence of new mobile interfaces (such as wearables and heads-up displays) are changing the primary computing device for many workers.
- Sensorization and miniaturization: the increasing miniaturization of components has created the viability of putting sensors on virtually everything so machines and assets of all types can be connected to share data.
- Cloud and edge computing: the ability to consume and process data at scale and access resources in an on-demand model allows companies to harness greater computing power.
- Advanced analytics: the widespread use of big data and evolution toward artificial intelligence will create new insights from the data being collected and analyzed.
The other main driver for IT/OT convergence is the need for businesses to conduct their operations better, faster, and safer. The pressure on industrial companies to remain competitive means their operations need to yield greater productivity, with better visibility into core operations, asset optimization, improved service, and employee and environmental safety being ever-present demands. Increased digitization of industrial and field operations is often viewed as a means to solving these core business challenges; the terms ‘Industry 4.0’ and ‘the 4th phase of industrial evolution’ are often used to describe this trend.
The reality for companies is this: eventually, most, if not all, OT gets touched by IT. The digital world is meeting the physical world, and organizations must prepare for this new reality.
IT/OT Convergence is About People, Too
It’s clear that emerging technologies – cloud computing, artificial intelligence, mobility, IoT, and others – will continue to change the way work gets done. And although work is changing, there are still people – human beings – with jobs to do. Often, these are companies’ most critical workers: first-line workers who need technology that makes their work easier, better, and safer. The next wave of emerging technologies, including body-worn hardware and wearables, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence and voice assistants, is poised to create a new era of immersive first-line worker digital experiences.
This next generation of mobile worker experiences presents the opportunity for companies to realize improved operational efficiencies, better customer engagement, and enhanced revenues. But first, organizations need to understand how to harness these powerful digital technologies by aligning solutions with business objectives.
New IT/OT Challenges Require New Solutions
The intersection of IT and OT means enterprise IT must adapt their thinking to provide reliable, mission-critical solutions for industrial operations. This convergence presents organizations with new considerations and new challenges; tackling these challenges requires individuals within organizations to recognize disparities and adapt traditional approaches. IT needs to meet the needs of OT and vice versa.
Additionally, business technology leaders need to consider how operational initiatives intersect with digital technologies and new user interfaces such as wearables, heads-up displays, augmented reality, and others. And since IT/OT convergence represents the intersection of the physical and digital worlds, organizations must realize that the bridges between those worlds are often people – field workers, technicians, equipment operators, etc. The ability to create digital experiences that allow these front-line workers to interact with the physical world that surrounds them will be critical.
New Technologies Create a “Solutions Gap”
As with any new wave of technology, another challenge emerges for businesses. When new technology is created and introduced into the market, there’s typically a disconnect between the vendors who sell the core technology (such as hardware, software, or cloud services) and the enterprise customers who can benefit from them. While the technology itself is compelling and business leaders can see their potential in transforming their operations, a gap remains in terms of understanding how to effectively implement them in their organizations. We call this disconnect the “solutions gap.”
The term “solution” is nebulous, but a full solution for digital experiences should involve a life cycle of ideate, create, run, and refresh:
- Ideate: How do we research, understand, and apply emerging technologies to solve our most critical business challenges?
- Create: How do we design, build, and implement applications and technologies in the right way for our business? (This includes the creation of the digital experience for users and the underlying architecture and infrastructure those experiences are built on.)
- Run: How are these applications and technologies implemented at the enterprise scale? How are they maintained and supported during their lifetime?
- Refresh: How do we improve the experiences we’ve created as our business needs and the technology itself evolves?
Solving the Solutions Gap Requires New Partners
Usually, businesses aren’t fully equipped to tackle these elements without the help of their IT partners; multiple challenges can prevent them from doing so on their own. Resource constraints within IT can hold companies back from investigating the potential of emerging technologies. Operational leaders might not understand the complexity of the technology applications they envision. And, most critically, many companies don’t have a formal approach for introducing IT into OT environments.
This implies a need for companies to seek the right partners to assist them with their digital journey for IT/OT convergence – choosing partners they can work with to design, build, implement, and support these new solutions. The right partners will also be those who understand both sides of the IT/OT equation: the needs of operational business leaders and the technology requirements of IT leaders. Those partners must also be capable of filling the “solutions gap” and delivering critical components within the life cycle of ideate, create, run, and refresh.
For more information about information technology, operational technology, the internet of things, and creating new solutions for upcoming technology trends, contact us today.
At Skyllful, our passion is helping customers solve important business problems by applying technology the right way. We believe that emerging technologies will continue to change the way work gets done. Skyllful helps business leaders and their most critical workers use technology in a way that makes their work easier, better, and safer.
Skyllful provides the brainpower and processes to ideate, create, run, and refresh digital experiences where mobile workers connect with the physical world. By bridging the divide between IT and line-of-business demands, Skyllful strikes a balance between the mobile worker experience and secure, reliable enterprise technology requirements to drive business outcomes.