July 2020

Special Focus: The Digital Plant

Define operational roles for industrial digital transformation

The term “industrial transformation” is sometimes used to describe digital transformation in plants, factories, mills and other industrial environments.

Cosman, E. C., ARC Advisory Group

The term “industrial transformation” is sometimes used to describe digital transformation in plants, factories, mills and other industrial environments. Although the basic concept is the same, the implications can be quite different. Jobs and roles commonly found in process or manufacturing operations include operators, engineers, technicians and plant management. The primary focus tends to be on safe, reliable and efficient operations, with non-operations responsibilities delegated to functions such as maintenance, supply and distribution, health and safety, and other infrastructural support organizations.

Industrial transformation is challenging the traditional view of operations-related roles. The increased use of digital methods and technologies in areas such as order management, supply chain and analytics lead to secondary and often unexpected consequences in operations. For example, the need for broader access to production data has resulted in more computing and network infrastructure in operations. This creates a need for more localized expertise in areas such as network design and configuration, and cybersecurity. This, in turn, leads to changes to how key roles in an industrial facility are defined, from process operators to operating and improvement engineers.

It is important to review and revise roles and responsibilities more frequently than in the past. It is also important to use industry benchmarks and common tools, where available, to provide a more sustainable result. Role descriptions must clearly define accountability, responsibility, and required skills and training. Addressing specific needs as they arise by adjusting existing roles or simply adding responsibilities to current personnel can lead to confusion in situations where multiple technical and engineering disciplines are involved. Past practices for defining roles and managing careers are likely to be inadequate in the face of accelerated change arising from trends such as industrial transformation. Experiences and perspectives from all stakeholder groups are essential to address this challenge.

Technology change and operations

Digital transformation has been a hot topic of discussion for the past several years. Although many define digital transformation as the introduction or integration of digital technology to transform functions and business processes, implications also exist for process definition and organization design. Industrial transformation is a more specific term, focusing specifically on technology-driven change to industrial operations.

Industrial operations personnel include operators, engineers, technicians and plant management. These roles focus primarily on the operation of a facility, as opposed to supporting functions such as maintenance, supply and distribution, health and safety, emergency response, human resources, security, information technology and other infrastructural support organizations. Because of this singular focus, operations is often viewed as one of the more stable segments of an industrial or manufacturing enterprise, somewhat insulated from shorter-term business and market influences.

Digitalization challenges this view. Although using digital technology for functions such as basic control and optimization goes back decades, increased use in areas such as order management, supply chain and analytics has secondary impacts in operations. The increased emphasis on the security of data transfer and access to production systems has also led to increased demands on operations personnel. Some of these demands (e.g., cybersecurity) have resulted in changes to the definitions for key roles, from process operators to operating and improvement engineers.

Role definition

The skills and experience required in operations are evolving in the face of changing business needs and emerging technology. For example, the increased use of general-purpose information technology (IT) components has resulted in the need for new skills in their configuration and support, as well as the tools and techniques required to address the security of automation systems. Roles and responsibilities may overlap to some degree with those of other expertise areas, such as information management, network design and cybersecurity.

Many asset owners have processes, procedures and templates for defining jobs and roles. The human resources department usually owns these; however, to be most effective they must be applied with involvement of functional experts. The tools used range from simple worksheets and documents to more sophisticated resource management systems. Regardless of the tools used, role descriptions must clearly define accountability, responsibility, and required skills and training. They should reflect immediate and internal needs, as well as guidance and benchmarking available from external sources.

Competency models

Competency models provide a means to define generic roles that can then be tailored and applied to specific situations. These are formal documents that define what a person needs to know and be able to perform well in a specific role—the knowledge, skills and abilities required. They are typically developed and maintained through research and industry validation. Specific examples include the automation and cybersecurity (FIG. 1) models developed several years ago.

FIG. 1. Cybersecurity competency model. Source: U.S. Department of Labor Competency Model Clearinghouse.

The National Consortium for Mission Critical Operations (NCMCO) provided mission-critical job skills training to the nation’s workforce by collaborating with business and industry groups to help ensure a demand-driven approach to educational offerings. The consortium’s curricula prepare graduates for employment in a wide range of positions in IT, operations technology (OT) and maintenance.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) represents approximately 1,800 community colleges in the U.S. It focuses on program initiatives for workforce planning and development in a variety of expertise areas, including automation and cybersecurity.

From theory to practice

Although many references, guidelines and examples are available, there is little anecdotal evidence that asset owners are using them. To some degree, this may be the result of a lack of awareness of their existence. It is possible that more promotion and sharing of such models may increase adoption. Many companies prefer to keep the definition of roles as a strictly internal exercise. This can make benchmarking more challenging. Even if external references are considered, this may be insufficient. Effective benchmarking requires case studies or proven examples.

Although role descriptions may be used as the basis to manage compensation, common practice appears to be to address specific needs as they arise, either by adjusting existing roles or simply adding responsibilities to current personnel. This can lead to confusing situations in operations groups, where multiple technical and engineering disciplines may be involved. Responsibilities may not map directly to disciplines. An example includes assigning network management to plant or control engineers, taking time away from what may be their primary tasks.

The advance of industrial transformation will only complicate this situation. Introducing and adopting disruptive technologies in the industrial operations context will place more strain on existing roles and increase confusion about role boundaries. One example of this is the recognized need for closer collaboration between IT security experts and operating personnel to protect automation systems.

Changes required

Clearly, the status quo is inadequate, and defining roles on an individual basis simply does not scale. Asset owners and their service partners must look beyond the immediate context for proven and effective practices. Once they have implemented changes, they should be encouraged to share their experiences. This should include what worked, as well as what did not.

The competency models and other tools that government, standards groups, consultants and academia have developed must be further tested and validated in the real world. It is particularly important that lessons learned from practical applications be shared with the educational community, allowing them to adjust curricula to better address practical needs. It is also possible to apply the same lessons to improve competency models and other tools, thereby making them more valuable as future references (FIG. 2).

FIG. 2. Digital transformation categories and maturity levels. Source: ARC Advisory Group.

The number and variety of potential stakeholder groups means that it is unclear what context or venue would be best to host this collaboration. Professional societies could facilitate some of the discussion, but it is not always clear how some critical roles map to these associations.

Although specific and the most effective actions may not be clear, it is quite apparent that past practices used to define roles and manage careers are likely to be inadequate in the face of accelerated change arising from trends such as industrial transformation. Experiences and perspectives from all stakeholder groups are essential to address this challenge. HP

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