Should Engineers be Social or Not?

A colleague pointed me to this provocatively titled article, Social media: Why engineers should be anti-social, on the Control Engineering website. It reports:

A recent survey says that IT departments are having arms twisted to relax cyber security rules and allow access to social media sites, such as Twitter or GoogleApps.

I hope some of my gentle prods, such as, “I know that some have written me to say that their IT department blocks these videos. I think the case must be made that there are significant business uses from training videos, to application videos, to even capabilities videos like these”, aren’t contributing to this undue pressure… OK, I confess. I do hope they are.

The title of this article seems to be the polar opposite of an article Deb Franke and I wrote for a sister publication, Control Engineering Asia. The article, The World of Web 2.0, describes our strong beliefs how these social media technologies can increase the effectiveness of engineers and other process manufacturing professionals.

Upon closer inspection of the article, it was not a call for engineers to be anti-social all the time, just when they happen to be on computers sharing bandwidth with the control system network connected to social media applications out on the web. The article cites applications such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, GoogleApps, etc.

At least, that was my takeaway from ISA SP99 co-chairman Brian Singer’s quote:

Taking 300-500 ms extra to receive e-mail or a Webpage is largely unnoticeable; 300-500 ms for control messages or safety messages could be disastrous. Often, what is an acceptable level of saturation or utilization from an IT perspective can spell disaster for controls.

In the article, Emerson’s cyber-security expert Bob Huba added:

“Using the control system for non-control communications, says Bob Huba, DeltaV product manager for Emerson Process Management, “regardless of how much ‘extra’ bandwidth appears to be available, can only lead to problems getting the mission-critical control information distributed as quickly as possible.”

On these points, I can’t disagree. I believe engineers, on their plant intranet networks, outside the firewalls and DMZ, which separates this network from the plant’s control network, should have access to these social media applications–for the reasons we cite in the Web 2.0 article.

I also believe there is benefit in experience sharing with some of these social media applications like wikis, blogs, and microblogs hosted internally, inside the firewall, but also not connected to the control network.

Where once the operator and maintenance workstations were the only way to view information, we now live in a world with phones, hardened portable devices, and other handheld devices that can connect people to the information they need without piping this information through the control network.

My thoughts in summary… keep that pressure on the IT folks to open up the plant networks to social media applications, but not the plant control networks.

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Update: Welcome Feed Forward readers! Paraphrasing the words of Get Smart‘s Maxwell Smart, “I hope I wasn’t out of line with that crack about engineers.” As an engineer, I mean it only in the most endearing way!

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One comment so far

  1. Jim – While I agree with you about separating the plant networks and the control networks I would like to point out that the control systems themselves have an awful lot of information to contribute to the conversation. Palantiri Systems (http://www.palantirisystems.com) has developed a “Collaborative Device Community” platform that allows devices & control systems to be participants in a social networking style collaboration environment. In this platform devices, as well as people, can blog, update their status, and even be participants in chat and multi-user chats for diagnostic purposes. They have their own profiles that can only be accessed by their friends, be they human or other devices. Our instant messaging based connection into the device (secured and throttled, of course) also allows for things like ad-hoc searches across the entire device population. We have found that combining the well recognized benefits of human social networking, with the participation of remote devices and systems, along with access into other enterprise applications and databases provides an incredibly useful and valuable collaboration tool for overworked plant managers, field service folks, and engineering.

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