Tuesday, 22 April 2014 18:16

Capturing knowledge of retiring IT staff ‘critical’ for business

By *Darren Wyllie
Darren Wyllie, Honeywell Process Solutions Darren Wyllie, Honeywell Process Solutions

As we look ahead at what the year might hold for engineers and IT staff working in the process industries, one thing is clear. The industry challenges that afflicted companies in 2013 look set to remain in 2014 - a rising cost of doing business, continued market volatility and a chronic shortage of skilled talent to meet ongoing production demands in Australia.

And while the industry has felt the burden of a skills shortage for a number of years, we expect that in the next few years, organisations will witness unprecedented staff turnover as a generation of engineers retire – the baby boomers.

From a business management perspective, what does this mean? If unprepared, it can signify the loss of decades of knowledge and experience, replaced by new operators that may indeed have the skills, but lack the notches in their belts to help them respond to incidents just as promptly and intuitively as their predecessors. In this environment, the process of capturing the knowledge of senior operators before they retire is critical, but some businesses may not know where to start.

At Honeywell, we believe any approach to maintaining operator skills and knowledge is twofold. Firstly, organisations need a strong backbone of technology for data capture and visualisation that makes collaboration across the business not only possible, but also beneficial. With increasing economic pressures and a move to more prohibitive extraction environments, organisations must ensure the capability of their workforce is not limited by geography. Secondly, with the use of software modeling tools for operator training, businesses can ensure that processes and procedures are learned in a simulated and safe environment, even before a plant is operational.

If we look back at the evolution of the control room, there has been a transformation in the way that information is used and managed. In the 1970s, when distributed control systems first came to market, they were considered revolutionary technology. These systems improved over the years, especially with the move to open systems in the 1990s. And then with the turn of the century we introduced the process knowledge system, which integrates across a facility and captures the knowledge of operators for improved operations and profitability.

Yet, in the past couple of years, the “knowledge capture” functionality has moved out of just the control room to incorporate the entire enterprise, using intelligent data gathering and visualisation tools that allow for more effective decisions in a fraction of the time, and leading to overall business transformation in the long term. With the use of such technology, remote collaboration efforts can be significantly improved, and more widely, personnel productivity levels increased by approximately 10 per cent. These kind of tools also allow expert knowledge to be effectively harnessed and relayed even if an expert is not present, maintaining business confidence in the competency of staff at all times.

Beyond enterprise data management technology, software for new and ongoing operator training has an important role to play in the process of workforce management. We’ve deployed operator training simulation solutions for a number of our customers, to assist with upskilling staff in advance of plant start-ups, but also more generally in response training for abnormal situations. One of the key obstacles our customers face with newer recruits is that few have personal experience with abnormal, infrequent or unusual process operations. But by using process modeling technology, these kinds of scenarios can be replicated to ensure operators are trained to act in both a quick and appropriate manner for that specific situation.

Regardless of any ongoing improvements in technology, now or in the future, we recognise that people are and always will be the key assets of a business. They’re critical in making informed decisions that improve operations, ensure safety and maintain overall profitability.

Yet with ongoing pressures on Australia’s talent pool and a retiring generation of engineers, developing and sustaining operator competency becomes increasingly challenging. The right tools can make all the difference to a business, ensuring that plant knowledge is captured and shared with a new generation of staff, and sustaining the overall safety, reliability and profitability of an operation.

*Darren Wyllie, General Manager – Advanced Solutions, Honeywell Process Solutions

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