Utilities Must Define Their Own Convergence

While each utility has its own way of integrating business systems, it is essential that the benefits of IT-OT convergence are realized.
Published: Wed 05 Mar 2014

“Interoperability and ‘IT-OT’ integration are becoming very real, tangible initiatives. This is according to Mike Smith of the Utility Analytics Institute. He points out that the vision to integrate the two silos is no longer only something that is on the horizon, but is one that utility leaders are starting to implement-to suit their own unique business needs.

New opportunities

IT and OT staff have new opportunities to work together on system engineering standards and architecture, product and supplier standards, and business case timelines, explains Jeff Nichols, director of information security and information management at San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). For example, predictive analytics or "big data" is bringing IT and OT staff together in new ways- IT has analysis capabilities and tools and in-memory computing platforms useful at scales needed by business counterparts, and OT has data and domain knowledge, but no real experience with the cutting-edge analysis tools used by IT.

Compliance activities have brought IT and OT together on processes such as safety, access controls, privacy and cybersecurity. High-priority, prescriptive compliance frameworks like NERC / CIP have required IT staff and grid operations staff to work together in new ways to share documentation, and collaborate on risks and mitigation.
 

While IT-OT integration is becoming a reality and many utilities are enjoying the benefits, some continue to mull over the concept of IT-OT integration. Some utilities are pushing everything under an IT umbrella, some under OT. And, some utilities like to keep everything completely separate. Some utilities even view the IT-OT convergence term as highly polarizing in and of itself.

Natural convergence

However, most utilities appear to agree that the term represents two different types of technology that are converging and that the convergence is a natural one since operational hardware needs software in order to operate effectively. Since IT affects every aspect of business, it is only makes sense that the operations side adopts IT.

While the integration of OT-IT presents its own challenges, utilities should try to avoid a battle between IT and operations. Instead, each case should be examined for synergies and strengths. We discuss these challenges in our article, IT-OT Integration-Overcoming the Challenges.

IT staff pointed out that one problem isn’t new in this transition and it wasn’t created by this new idea. In fact, it existed before the creation of the term IT-OT convergence: individual departments are pulling away valuable (and skilled) IT people to serve inside other departments and creating their own personal departmental IT staff.

While utility IT departments are getting better with patching, standards and business needs, the slow drain of IT resources to other departments remains a critical issue, as well as an HR problem if there are different pay grades or paths for advancement in each department.

 

To merge your IT and OT properly, the following best practice suggestions are recommended:


 

  • Know the vertical-who is in charge?

  • Remove the slow bleed of IT personnel to other departments through a top-down HR approach that bans departments from creating internal IT.

  • Lay out a map of all the resources under each vertical that must be managed.

  • Determine what position (Chief Information Officer, Vice President) is in charge of those resources.

  • Define (or redefine) roles within the verticals to compliment the blended structure.

  • Never allow one departmental culture to dominate or personnel in one vertical to establish distrust. A culture of mutual respect should be adopted.

  • Know to whom tangential related departments (such as GIS) report to.

  • Develop a governance model for the new integrated departments so that tasks, goals and rules are clear and unquestionable.



Every utility’s needs are unique and therefore must define its own convergence. Regardless of how the utility approaches IT-OT convergence, it is essential that everyone is on board and working towards the same goal: improved systems and operations integration. Our article, IT-OT Integration-Everyone Must Be On-Board, discusses the importance of a group’s willingness to change as a whole.