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Meet the 'Fab Five' of IT/OT Leadership

March 26, 2024
The IT/OT convergence in manufacturing is happening rapidly. These five leadership roles will figure into the transition.

For decades, manufacturing and supply chain-based businesses have operated with two types of technology, each operating in its separate lane. Operational technology (OT) ran the plant or warehouse, and was the backbone upon which a business that made or distributed products was built. Information technology (IT) managed hardware, systems, and data for an organization’s front-office functions.  With the expansion of modern technologies like AI and machine learning, it’s now possible to build a bridge between OT and IT and leverage these technologies to create data-driven efficiencies within the supply chain.  Today, traditional OT and IT are rapidly converging, and companies that ignore this industry-wide transformation risk being left behind.

CIOs across manufacturing and supply chain organizations are being asked to lead this convergence and drive digital transformation within operations.  This journey is rife with challenges and roadblocks, from resistant leadership in the supply chain to outdated legacy technology. 

Because of these challenges, manufacturing CEOs need to find the right technology leadership to drive this convergence of OT and IT and achieve the insights and efficiency desired. Business leaders are asking, “who and what will best drive our IT and OT convergence?”

Derived from extensive conversations with technology leaders and experience helping companies build these teams, these are the five most important roles to consider for a successful IT/OT convergence:

1.  A truly strategic technology leader: This is likely a CIO, but in some businesses could be a chief digital officer or a similar title. A strategic CIO will work across the business, partnering specifically with operations leadership to define the goals of using modern technology in the supply chain.  Once those goals are defined, the CIO will lead the development of a roadmap, complete with timelines and definitions of how success will be measured.

2. A forward-looking enterprise architect: One of the key challenges of bringing modern technologies into operations is the age of existing operational technology.  In some cases, operational technology is controlled by hardware and software older than the employees on the shop floor.  How will the “old” technology integrate with new technology?  What needs to be modernized?  And how will data be captured and accessed?  An architecture leader sees across the tech stack and builds a plan for how these different technologies fit together.  A strong architect also has their finger on the pulse of the most modern, innovative technologies, and how they might be integrated into an existing roadmap.

3. A modern data leader: A strong data & analytics strategy has become a must for any organization, as modern AI-driven technologies require solid data foundations.  It is no different in industries like manufacturing and distribution.  When integrating IT and OT, data leadership is crucial to defining how data will be captured across new and old systems, how that data will be stored, and how it will be leveraged by business leaders to create optimal outcomes.

4. A change manager focused on business partnership: These roles can have a variety of titles, from business partner to business relationship manager, and can be leveled as Vice Presidents or Directors.  But the primary responsibility of this role is to partner with operations leadership and be the bridge between those leaders and IT.  Because of the importance of change management to the success of an IT/OT convergence strategy, tight integration and communication is key.  While the CIO is also responsible for this partnership, he has too many other responsibilities to be the primary point of contact for operations.  The business partner takes that role, builds strong relationships, and creates strategies to assuage business concerns and drive a convergence strategy forward.

5. A cybersecurity leader who can bring the system current: Proclaiming the importance of cybersecurity can be likened to proclaiming the importance of oxygen, but the convergence of IT and OT creates a host of new threats and headaches for CIOs and CISOs alike.  While the security of financial and customer data has been a hot-button issue for years, security in the supply chain has seen underinvestment.  This has made the supply chain a top target for bad actors, who can create significant damage with a breach.  Compounding issues is the age of OT assets, which makes it very difficult to protect them with modern cybersecurity tools.  As a CIO creates an IT/OT convergence strategy, he must pay great attention to cyber and having the right cyber talent in place, just as in all aspects of IT.

Depending on the size of an organization, some of these roles may need to be combined.  In a smaller or mid-size organization, leaders wear multiple hats.  For instance, enterprise architecture can oftentimes be combined with data & analytics.  Or a functional role like architecture could be combined with a business partnership role.  But the five roles above describe responsibilities that need to be accounted for during a successful IT/OT convergence.

Across these roles, there are also certain things we can look for to identify leaders who can guide this transformation successfully.  A strong technical foundation is always desired in IT in the form of academic degrees in computer science or information systems.  However, when seeking a leader who will work with both operational and information technology, a background in a field like mechanical engineering becomes much more relevant.  A leader who earned a mechanical engineering degree, spent early career time in manufacturing or in a plant, and then moved into IT shows an understanding of the people, processes and technology in both OT and IT.

Different leaders and functions will have different goals in a complex business with multiple priorities.  This is just as true when integrating IT and OT.  While the “Fab Five” of IT/OT convergence should ensure success, each of these roles should be considered game-changers as your business looks to the future.

Charley Betzig is managing director at Heller Search.

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