Three Strategies for Navigating the IT-OT Convergence Strategy

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Click to learn more about author Bill Scudder.

Operating technology (OT) and information technology (IT) share a common goal of driving new value and successes for enterprises, but their tactics, perspectives, and priorities for accomplishing those goals have historically differed. However, for organizations in capital-intensive industries, the acceleration of Industry 4.0 is creating a dramatically new environment. Embracing Industry 4.0 means utilizing IT and OT in tandem to leverage an enterprise’s systems, sensors, and networks for optimizing business performance. Because of that, the gap between IT and OT needs to shrink, not widen — and enterprises can play a proactive role in facilitating that.

Here are three pillars of an effective enterprise strategy to navigate IT-OT convergence.

1. Safety-First Decision-Making

Safety for both workers in industrial facilities and the nearby communities around those facilities is a paramount concern for plant operators. It’s an area ripe for bridging the IT-OT gap. Historically, OT has been more focused on implementing technologies that prevent and control industrial accidents, while IT has directed its efforts more at facility intrusion prevention and physical security. But COVID-19 has proven to be a natural convergence point for the two sides. As a result, we’ve seen OT and IT collaborate on developing employee health and wellness solutions that integrate people, data, and workflows seamlessly. This has resulted in new solutions like tracker workflows for capturing COVID-19 case information across an organization, contact tracing workflows that generate real-time notifications for potential worker exposure on-site, and other agile enterprise workflows for tracking and collecting vaccination data. On this issue, the priorities and tactics of both OT and IT have converged to ensure both the health and physical safety of employees.

Looking ahead, business leaders must look at broader areas of common ground between IT and OT. One example is leveraging Industrial AI solutions to reduce unsafe working conditions in facilities by focusing on the transient operations (shutdown, startup, and maintenance) that are responsible for 50 percent of process safety incidents, like unplanned shutdowns and process upsets. Those shutdowns are often the biggest sources of dangerous work conditions, as well as production waste and associated carbon emissions. For both IT and OT teams, safety is a key priority and a shared goal. And while their tactics until now may have differed, flashpoints like COVID-19 have sparked new opportunities for natural collaboration toward achieving these goals.

2. Tech Obsolescence and Minimizing Friction in New Updates

Both IT and OT have a shared concern about technological obsolescence and technical debt. IT wants to maintain a steady stream of updates and patches that ensure continuous, up-to-date support for hardware and software. OT also wants cutting-edge technology implementations in place, of course. But where they differ is that while IT actively maintains updates to their solutions over time, OT wants hardware that doesn’t have to be touched for years. Bringing the two together means convincing the OT side that new technological changes will deliver significant and measurable benefits — in other words, that any new investments will be worth the hassle of implementing and periodically upgrading them.

Facilitating an IT-OT convergence on this front entails implementing IT investments that minimize friction in updating, upgrading, deploying, validating, and maintaining new innovations in order to ease OT concerns. Many are seeing success with tapping industrial AI solutions, which provide the cloud-ready software needed to streamline solution lifecycles, consolidate industrial Data Management, and ease access to critical data. The more that organizations can lean on industrial AI to fully integrate data across the enterprise, from sensors to the edge and the cloud, the more they can minimize that friction and bring IT and OT together.

3. Threading the Needle on Cybersecurity Defenses and Upgrades

Cybersecurity is another area ripe for information sharing and collaboration between IT and OT. But in the past, IT has struggled with weaving OT assets throughout the enterprise. The OT side of an organization has often been more focused on cyber intrusions into operating networks that may jeopardize personnel and equipment (e.g., the Stuxnet and Triton attacks). In response to those threats, OT will air gap networks or implement diodes to curb the spread of a breach. But these tactics are hard to square with IT teams, whose mission has largely been aimed at updating technologies and applying software. Likewise, IT’s methods have been difficult to reconcile with OT due to OT’s general aversion to making system changes that may result in downtime with negative impacts on production.

But these differences are not irreconcilable. Technology upgrades go hand-in-hand with bolstering cyber defenses against external threats. And as cybersecurity becomes more acute and top of mind for business leaders, the need to bring IT and OT together will be business-critical. Team leaders can bridge this gap between the two sides by mediating risk-benefit analyses on system changes, prioritizing IT investments that complement OT initiatives while also minimizing risks of downtime or production impacts.

These are not the only areas where IT and OT differ and not the only areas where the opportunity for common ground and collaboration lies. But safety, technological obsolescence, and cybersecurity provide good and necessary starting points for organizations to facilitate a business-critical convergence of their IT and OT teams.

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