Interview: Leading Change at ISA

Jan. 1, 2006
Ken Baker, president of ISA, the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society, spoke with Automation World Editor In Chief Gary Mintchell about the Society and his hopes for his term.

AW: What is the major need in the industry that ISA can attack today?

Baker: We need to start defining automation as a profession. We have a beginning with the Certified Automation Professional (CAP) program. We need to do some marketing around this concept. Management and society at large need to know what we do and how important that is to manufacturing and society. Think about the chemical industry after Love Canal. In those days, it was on the bad side of publicity and opinion. But look at how they have explained to people what good things they do. And it worked.

We have two other certification programs. The Certified Instrumentation Technician and Certified Industrial Maintenance Mechanic.

AW: Some critics have pointed to an unwieldy structure as a problem for the Society. Could you briefly explain the structure?

Baker: I’m elected to a three-year series of offices as a member of the executive committee. One year as Secretary/President-elect, one as President and one as Past President. The main governance board has 16 members with an executive committee composed of six members. Our main responsibility is to provide the volunteer leadership that creates and manages the “whats” of ISA, while staff leadership provides the “hows.”

There are two other governance groups. One way we are organized is through geographic districts. The district vice presidents are part of the overall governance board. Then we have several technical departments for such things as publications, standards, Web site management and the like. So the entire leadership group numbers around 40. Then we have about 150 who come to annual meetings.

AW: What is the role of ISA today?

Baker: Our mission statement says ISA is setting the standard for automation. The promise of that is engineers working in partnership to solve difficult manufacturing problems. So inside the organization, engineers are telling the “whats” of automation. What problems need to be solved, what the Society must do to enhance our profession. One of the major things we need to be working on is enhancing the careers of automation professionals. You ought to want to join ISA because you find benefits to enhance your career. The value proposition is you feel better about yourself as a professional and your company feels better about you.

ISA provides access to standards, training, certifications, publications and conferences. The focus internally is on how to be excellent in providing member services and products within those five core competencies. We’re also focused on staff leadership to complement efforts of volunteers to assure that we’re tuned in to the needs of our members. We need to be quickly aware where there’s a gap between what we offer and the needs of members, or when something has changed in the industry. For example, we’re picking up quickly on security and wireless networking (ISA committees SP99 and SP100, respectively). We want to optimize the standards process and provide consensus standards and guidelines to the industry.

What I want to do is assure you that we are tuned in to the needs of the profession and providing a value-added set of products, so that you can see the value when you renew your membership.

AW: What do you see as challenges for growth?

Baker: We need to get the message out about what we do. We have a high value proposition in our traditional process industry area. But thinking of industries as the radio spectrum, process is only a small part of it. So we need to make the value proposition in industries that we haven’t been in—discrete and packaging, for example. That’s what is so valuable about our new partnership with OMAC. It has worked well so far having the ISA brand associated with its work. If there are opportunities to partner within other professions, then we will pursue it. Like Satchel Paige said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

[OMAC—Open Modular Architecture Control—is a user group formed primarily by engineers in discrete and hybrid industries and includes a packaging industry working group. Formed in 1994, it became part of ISA in 2005.]

In addition, we need to grow globally. Right now, about a third of our members live outside of North America. There is huge potential in Asia. We currently have a large concentration of members in Brazil, but we need to expand in South America.

AW: Many writers, including me, have suggested that ISA faces major problems. What problems do you see and how are you attacking them?

Baker: We did some research with two different groups. One looked at revitalizing our message and the other was to create a model for global growth. Both came back with similar recommendations. First, we have some good stuff in the organization, but we keep it hidden. Research came back that said that we used to be revered, but now we’re just respected—with some letdowns.

Then we’ve had four years with some pretty significant losses. The Expo is smaller, ad pages in our publications have declined. It took several years of pretty dismal results for a critical mass of leadership to develop. The world has changed. The way people network has changed. And, the way people get information has changed.

The focus at the President’s Meeting last April was to look at these results. You know, when you prepare for a meeting with some heavy topics, you spend a lot of time pondering what could go wrong or how many questions you’ll have to answer. But the meeting was remarkably free of contention, because everyone realized we need to do something different. Leadership has become quite upbeat and ready to do new things.

We need to focus on how to make the technical divisions more relevant. We need to focus on what we need to do and how to do it. It’s like when I quit smoking. I told lots of people so that they also expected me to stop. This built a large support group. It’s the same with bringing change to the organization. We need to get the message out level-by-level.

Another focus we started with Rob [Renner, previous executive director], and when Pat [Gouhin, new executive director] is ready, we’ll pick it up again. This is to create and maintain contacts at senior levels of management at supplier, user and engineering firms. We need to get them to understand the value of our mission. They can help junior-level people get involved in ISA and its certification programs. At the same time, we want to get input from them on how ISA can help them improve.

AW: Companies once paid the membership dues for employees. In these days of cutbacks, many have stopped this benefit. Is this something that has negatively affected membership?

Baker: If we can’t provide enough services to someone for the $85 membership fee—just the price of a dinner with one’s significant other—then we have a problem explaining our value.

AW: You referred to the decline in the Expo. What is happening with trade shows and conferences?

Baker: Where once we had about 300,000 square feet of exhibit space, we are down to about 100,000 now. We’re where we’re going to be for a while until the exhibitors’ business models change. Large companies have chosen to market through their own vertical channels. They find much higher conversion of attendees to sales at their own events. Like the old shopping malls, if the anchors leave, mall traffic reduces. So if the anchors believe they are getting value with the current system, then they’ll continue to do their own events. When that model taps out, we need to have a value for them to get them back. On the other hand, smaller companies really need a venue where they can get access to larger numbers of people in one place.

It took us four years to change our business model so that it doesn’t need a show of the large size it used to be. From data we’ve seen, it’s the rare exhibition that’s as large today as it once was. Not only is the old IPC (International Programmable Controller) show gone, but look also at Comdex and the Chem Show. Both are much smaller than in years past. For one thing, information is much more accessible now. Twenty years ago, the cycle of innovation was slower and set for product introductions for every October (the usual month for ISA Expo). Information moved more slowly and people looked forward to ISA Expo to see what was new. But the cycle is much faster now. Users don’t need the Expo as much to find new products.

Several years ago, leadership thought that attendance would just go back to the good old days the following year. But we’ve gotten past that view for the United States. Now, that’s not true worldwide. I have just returned from Sao Paulo, Brazil. They had a huge show—around 17,000 non-duplicated attendees. It’s still beneficial there. They are on track to sell 150 percent of the space next year compared to this year. So other markets show the need for a large Expo.

AW: The conference part of Expo was always a great learning event. What’s happening with your conferences?

Baker: We’ve always focused on improving content of our conferences. One emphasis is to ramp up more focused, targeted and quality conferences. We just had our first PAT (process analytical technology) conference. About 35 to 40 people came, with 25 to 30 coming for an additional one day of training on this U.S. Food and Drug Administration initiative. The old model was that a technical division did one conference per year, if it wanted to. Now—and this is not trying to play in a division’s space—if we don’t have a division put on a conference on an unmet need, we’ll put one together. We have decided to be more fleet of foot and use staff to help put a conference together quickly when we need one. They can be faster than when you’re just working with volunteers.

AW: So, what’s the conclusion for ISA?

Baker: We need change and the pain associated with it. Most of the change is evolutionary, but some changes hit us in the head, like the decline of the show. We’re learning about change management. Change is painful, but it’s OK for it to be. Humans just don’t like change.

Change management goes through stages. You start at the hopeful stage when you think of all the good things that can happen. But then you hit the downslope of emotions when you begin to wonder if things will really work out, or if the decisions were the right ones. But when you start focusing on actions, you are starting to climb out of the doldrums. And when you see good things start to happen, then you’re over the top.

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