August 2008
  
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Is IT god?

Does god exist?
Yes, there is a god; her name is Communications!

Michael KirreneMichael Kirrene
Founder and President
Optimal Energy

Mkirrene@verizon.net


I am compelled to explore this question because of some observations I made while attending Connectivity Week in Santa Clara – urgings from the editor of this newsletter, Ken Sinclair, were also persuasive. 

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Stranger in a strange land

Let me explain.  I am from the land of IT. I have spent many years learning, applying and managing information technologies for the purpose of optimizing business processes.  I have been involved in IT’s evolution from when wire boards were state of the art to where it is today.  As IT transformed, I too evolved from a programmer and journeyed my way up the professional ladder, started a few companies and served as Chief Information Officer (CIO) for several corporations.  Bottom line: I am IT. 

So, what was I doing at Connectivity Week?  Over the last few years it has become increasingly obvious to me that many of the world’s most critical problems center on energy.  Optimizing business processes and optimizing energy processes appear to be the similar problems – involving large, complex and expensive projects with significant benefits in return.  With my background I believe I can make meaningful contributions.  So, as of the beginning of this year I retired my CIO position and embarked on a quest to learn as much as possible about the world of energy - its sources, distribution, regulation, management and control.  The Connectivity Week agenda seemed to cover most topics of interest.

Getting acquainted

Learning the jargon was my first challenge (BuilConn, IndConn, DR and GridWise could teach IT a thing or two about creative mnemonics!).  But, while definitely a stranger, I found energy/building management concepts and implementation issues curiously familiar.

On the first day I attended the Building Systems Basics Workshop.  After a break I found a flyer from Anno Scholten on the meeting tables announcing a special gathering to discuss a proposal concerning “Open Source.”   It sounded like a subject I would be familiar with; so I decided to attend the 5:30 meeting.   

Anno opened the meeting with a very humorous and to me informative introduction to his subject by recounting a succinct history of control systems and how they evolved from a simple pneumatic open protocol (“huff & puff”) to the current world of heterogeneous technologies and multi-layered communication protocols (LON, BACnet, TCP/IP, XML, HTML, etc.)  Anno noted that the development of open systems has been truly successful, but satisfying the demand for information integration at ever-higher levels is becoming the next big challenge.  His proposal is to establish an Open Source library to facilitate the creation and sharing of solutions  (Anno, please pardon any misrepresentations I might have made here).

At the conclusion of his remarks, Anno solicited audience input.  It was lively!

Aside from the subject of discourse, what I found particularly intriguing during the open discussion was the lofty position ascribed to “IT.”  Reverential references were made to IT that implied that it held the keys to the kingdom, if not the kingdom itself.  There was a sense that if only the lowly controls guys could gain the attention and respect from IT, then great things could be accomplished. 

Deja vu all over again

Control Solutions, Inc This assumption - that an entity existed whom after briefly considering really good recommendations would quickly muster the needed implementation support - brought back memories.  Of course, in the early days of IT such concerns did not matter – writing programs was so much fun that the satisfaction of writing clever routines far exceeded any concern for the utility of what was being created.  If there was an end user for the product his presence was unfelt, and, I thought, unneeded.  I knew what needed to be done.  Those were the halcyon “huff and puff” days of IT.

Frustrations began when it became possible to integrate applications and to share data across departmental boundaries.  Integration achieves significantly more efficiency than simply ‘paving the cow path’ by automating existing manual processes.  A sales transaction does not stand alone; it also affects inventory, assembly, shipping, payroll, billing, G/L, etc.  As increasingly more powerful tools and technologies became available to facilitate the integration of applications across the enterprise (relational databases, internet tools, client server and object oriented technologies, and all the protocols mentioned by Anno).  There were no longer any technical barriers to transforming how companies might operate. 

However, integrating processes across a business organization is not just expensive and time consuming, but more importantly, it means redesigning the way the enterprise operates.  And, it turns out that nobody wants change.  Even though benefits far exceed costs, getting approval for such projects is not easy.  I painfully discovered that creating the complex systems is trivial compared to introducing change.  It became necessary to learn a new set of non-technical skills. 

Inner Sanctum

It was while licking my wounds after another difficult implementation of a system that fell short of what it could have achieved, that I decided I needed access to the inner sanctum.  I needed to find the entity that could bring together all the players and ordain the great benefits possible through the efforts of IT. 

Soon I was allowed to join the senior management team.  Why?  Not because IT was an integral part of the enterprise, but rather because the necessary overhead of IT was just too big a cost center to ignore.  But to my disappointment, the business enterprise leadership was not the wise entity I expected.   In most instances, the senior executives had a very low tolerance for details, were not interested in technology and were more inclined to tactics than to strategies.  The CIO was tolerated, but not embraced.

That is when I finally realized that I had to become a member of the enterprise.  And, indeed, why should the enterprise be interested in technology – unless it relates to a business problem?   The enterprise was certainly not going to become part of IT, so to have any beneficial impact I had to find the way for IT to become part of enterprise. 

In the late 80’s external events provided some impetus, and suddenly senior business managers became as interested in the promise of IT as IT was in providing it.  Global competition and high labor costs forced enterprise leaders to do whatever necessary to improve operating efficiencies.  IT was ready and able – our time in the sun had arrived!  The rest is history and is still playing out. 

Reflections

These were my reflections as I listened to the give and take concerning the merits of open source and the allusions to IT’s power to enable or to crush building automation projects.

The parallels are clear.  Just as IT was frustrated in being able to contribute more fully to the benefit of its community, so too has the energy/building management professions been stymied.  The energy/building management industry is clearly ready and able to apply their skills and technologies.  Just as in the world of IT, the technology is there; it only lacks the opportunity to apply it.

And just as external events changed the fortunes of IT, so too are external events driving the fortunes of energy/building management professionals.  As the cost of energy continues to increase and environmental regulations become more prevalent, the cost of inefficiencies will force the benefit side of energy use and building automation investments to become more and more persuasive.  Investments in information systems took off when global competition forced business enterprises to optimize their business processes.  The energy/building management professional’s time in the sun will be driven by the rising costs of energy.

Epiphany

As I reflect back on all the amazing things that we in IT did accomplish and the dramatic changes that were implemented in spite of the many barriers, I realize that when the enterprise becomes interested in the promise of IT we were ready not only with the technology, but also with our ability to function as an integral part of the enterprise. 

To be effective, technology leaders must become participating members of their community, not just one of the weird guys behind locked doors in a secured area.  To be successful, technology leaders must learn the business, its challenges, and the economics of the enterprise.  Only then can we communicate our ideas and earn the full support of the enterprise.  So, it’s all about communications.

Does god exist?

Yes, there is a god; her name is Communications! 

For more information on Open Source read Anno Sholten's interview in this month's issue Open Source for Open Systems – Progress Report


About the Author

Michael Kirrene has over 30 years of experience in Information Technology supporting aerospace and various business enterprises as programmer, analyst, CIO and entrepreneur. He is redirecting his career to apply his extensive business leadership experience in IT to the all-important challenge of achieving economic energy and ecological sustainability.

Mr. Kirrene is founder and president of Optimal Energy, a consulting firm assisting business owners and energy/building management specialists to articulate the business case for funding significant efficiency and sustainability projects.

Contact information: Mkirrene@verizon.net; 310-230-0596

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