December 2014
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AutomatedBuildings.com

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Knowledge Sharing to Drive Learning

If you can hire good people, train them well, and ensure they continue to learn throughout their career will we see industry, from the operators to the engineers, achieve the potential we all know is there.

Brad White
Brad White, P.Eng, MASc
Principal
SES Consulting, Inc.


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I am very happy to again be taking part in this year’s AHR Education Sessions, along with Jim Sinopoli and Paul Oswald. We’ll be covering a wide range of topics this year from the evolving nature of the Internet of Things (IOT) and its impact on building operations, to smart cities and the important role that people play in making all of this technology work. As consultants, these are all topics that we have to grapple with on a daily basis. Within these topics, and almost everything else we do these days, are two key themes: Information and Education. A look back on the past few issues of Automated Buildings reveals that a lot of people in the industry seems to be thinking the same thing.  This has lead me to reflect on a couple of specific challenges that I have been dealing with a lot lately and how these themes apply. It’s now apparent to me that both challenges are really problems of extracting value from large amounts of information. Education is an integral part of both situations, but in different ways. In one case, the challenge is to use information to drive education. In the other situation, the large amounts of data only has value when those interacting with the data have the education to allow them to effectively interpret meaning from it.

Knowledge Sharing to Drive Learning

In the course of our work, we’re constantly encountering and solving problems to help buildings run better and more efficiently. Here’s the challenge we face with this sort of work: how do you capture the solution to that one control sequence issue on Building A and make that part of a body of knowledge that can be tapped into by someone who encounters the same issue, perhaps years later, on Building B? When we were a few people in one room yelling out “Hey, has anyone seen this before?” solved the problem. Trouble is, this approach doesn’t scale very well. Then you start to factor in that your knowledge base doesn’t consist just of what’s in people’s heads. How do you make sense of a collection of information that consists of boiler room conversations, anecdotes, documents, that cool article you read, spreadsheets, presentations, and a dozen other media types I’ve probably forgotten about? The problems we face as a company trying to get value out of our accumulated knowledge is a problem faced by almost every organization that is part of the knowledge economy. It’s certainly something our clients in building operations departments face all of the time. At some point I definitely recommend pausing to ask yourself “is there really value in making all of this information accessible?”  Assuming that you decide, as we have, that it is valuable, then you’ve cleared the first hurdle.

In our case, the main “value proposition” that we identified for of all of this information was training. Anyone in the industry will tell you, it is often impossible to find good experienced people. However, good people without experience are somewhat easier to find. Our company relies on a steady supply of the latter group. The formal engineering training of the majority of our technical team runs the gambit from aerospace, civil, chemical, electrical, and mechanical. Many of them, myself included, had never taken an HVAC course, had the first clue what a DDC system was, or stepped foot in a mechanical room. What they did have was a passion for the work and a ready willingness to learn. This situation resulted in the motivation for us to develop tools and systems for training and knowledge sharing within our team.

It turns out that there are great technology solutions to this problem. The entire usefulness of the internet is based on being able to find relevant content among huge amount of information it contains. Our task is really quite modest by comparison. We’re currently using a number of tools to support our knowledge base including a wiki, social media, online forums, databases of past projects, and a repository of useful material culled from a number of sources. Each is well suited to a particular type of information. Social media is ideal for sharing videos and articles, forums are great for technical banter. Everything we use is off the shelf and, more often than not, free. Our various knowledge sharing platforms have one thing in common, the content is largely generated through crowdsourcing. Here we encountered a bit of a catch-22, people will only use a platform when they find the content valuable, but there is no valuable content until people use it. So, while these platforms can grow organically and take on a life of their own, as ours now have, you may need to provide an initial seed to get it going, otherwise they remain rather devoid of content and people steer clear. Now well established, the platforms and communities we’ve created are proving to be invaluable both as training resources and for supporting ongoing development and growth of the entire team, from newly hired junior engineers all the way up to the principals.

While technology solutions, like the ones I discuss above, are part of the answer to the education and training problem, it certainly can’t completely replace things like good old fashioned mentorship. I am fortunate to have been exposed to many fantastic industry mentors early in my career. One such experience was through my participation in the Young Energy program which sponsored my attendance to Connectivity Week, where I had the opportunity to be exposed to a whole world of new ideas and make valuable contacts in the industry that serve me well today. Young Energy still lives on today as a LinkedIn group. This year’s Control Trends Awards will specifically recognize rising young talent in the building controls industry through their newly created “Young Guns Award”, which I will have the honor of presenting to a deserving recipient.  It’s initiatives like these, their ability to connect industry newcomers to inspirational veterans and the recognition of rising talent, that will be a big part of attracting and retaining top talent to our industry.

It turns out that Google already knows this. A lot of the themes I talked about are echoed in that article. The main lessons I took away are to: hire the best people you can find (even if you are not sure what you'll do with them), hire people who cherish learning, and don't be afraid of unconventional planning processes since we also face a pretty dynamic industry. I think we do a pretty decent job at this already, but it's always nice to have confirmation that we're not way out in left field with our ideas, or at least we're in good company out there. Examples like these are good inspiration for how we can continue to push things and also a reminder of why these things are important if we're going to continue to be successful.  
       
Creating Value from Data Through Education

Turning our gaze outward now, as building optimizers, our work has always been about data. More specifically it is about getting value from data. Collect, analyze, fix. This basic workflow has not really changed much over the years.

Creating Value from Data Through Educations 

What’s changing is the volume of this data. The amount of data generated by a modern building from smart meters, increasingly cheap sensors, and connected devices of all sorts is overwhelming. Cheap memory and cloud storage means we never have to throw anything away. All of this data is great, but what do you DO with it and does it even have value? The typical building operator probably doesn’t look at more than a small fraction of the data that’s generated. In this situation, the vast majority of that data has no value. As consultants, our role is increasingly focused on helping our clients change this situation by demonstrating where the value in their data lies, and working with them to effectively use this information to improve operations.

Reliable Controls New tools are coming available all the time to help with this. The number of software systems such as fault detection and energy information system tools on the market increases every day.  It is also getting easier to create our own tools for data analytics by tapping into the wealth of open source work in this area, such as ECAM+ or Universal Translator.  Building owners should be aware that settling on a tool is only the very first, and probably the easiest, step on the journey to making your data valuable. Once you have a tool, you need to figure out who is going to use it and how it fits in with your procedures. The entire operations team has to be willing to adapt to a new way of working, one that is data driven. Getting there requires a willingness to learn. Once again, it comes back to people and education.

Now that we’ve come full circle, I’m starting to appreciate the real lesson in all of this: the volume of information, whatever the type, will continuously increase while the tools for coping with it will improve alongside. But only if you can hire good people, train them well, and ensure they continue to learn throughout their career will we see industry, from the operators to the engineers, achieve the potential we all know is there.


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