Lisa Williams says that in the power industry “the future is meeting the present head on, as a wave of digitalization crashes over industrial control systems that are, in many cases, decades old”.

Williams, who is manager of IT and IIoT services in the US at KBC Advanced Technologies, says that operational excellence for companies increasingly depends on how efficiently their information technology interacts with their operational technology.

“It is important that these two functions aren’t excessively ‘siloed’ – IT/OT convergence is happening and organizational association is the key to its success.”

Williams says critical infrastructure organizations face the double challenge of “conforming with security protection requirements to a very high degree while at the same time maintaining their operational integrity and reliable performance”. 

“In addition to having to cope with cyber threats, today’s grid management is a more complex task than ever. Integration of electric vehicles, smart meters, renewables and a whole host of connected devices provides utilities with an unprecedented challenge. Not only this, but the energy flow is bidirectional – end users are not just consuming power, but also generating and feeding into the grid, through solar for example.

“Operational technology is ubiquitous throughout energy, utilities and manufacturing, however the power industry in particular is one that represents a huge opportunity to foster operational excellence through the alignment of IT and OT functions. It is, after all, an asset-heavy industry on a vast scale with monitors and sensors that track and control both generation and delivery to the end-user.”

Williams says the importance of IT/OT convergence is “really in how it enables monitoring and control of sensors and connected systems on a huge scale. It also makes analyzing the data that these complex systems produce much easier, and can be done anywhere in the world, particularly by harnessing cloud technology.”

However, she stresses that “it’s not solely about converging the technologies themselves. Businesses also need to ensure that the departments and processes are as integrated as possible.

“Power and utility companies must overcome these obstacles and bridge the gap between IT and OT within their businesses.

“As the IIoT revolution continues to gain momentum, further sped up by the soon-to-launch 5G spectrum, there will be a multitude of connected devices, systems and sensors to interact with. Legacy networks simply do not have the capability to deal with this level of demand – instead power companies must look to improve their level of IT/OT integration, if they have not done so already.

“Without it, the undoubted efficiencies and cost savings of the IoT and the smart grid cannot be fully maximized, and more innovative businesses will gain an advantage.”

However, Williams says “there really is an opportunity here to foster operational excellence throughout the company and encourage a more cooperative approach to digitalization within the business. As with any sweeping organizational change within an organization, there is no simple solution to bridging this divide.”

She explains that IT and OT have developed independently but they are now inextricably linked – and the governance and processes of an organization need to reflect this.

“Coordination of IT/OT convergence must come from the senior leadership team, particularly as harmonizing two absolutely crucial business units may create some conflict. But with the next generation of employees making their mark in the industry, organizations that correctly implement training and planning initiatives have the chance to put in place a harmonious working relationship that benefits both parties.

“Not only this, but the strong foundation of IT/OT convergence, while it may be a difficult undertaking in the short term, will put power companies and utilities in a position to field the challenges and opportunities that digitalization will throw at them.”

This article is an extract from a longer exclusive interview that will appear in PEi magazine later this month. Subscribe now to be sure of receiving your issue.

IT/OT convergence is a key topic of the conference programme at Electrify Europe in Vienna in June. For more details click here.