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Tune In: Innovation and Leadership in Automation

"I hire innovative people." - Warren Buffett. "Hire the right people." - Bill Gates.

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In this issue, we take a deep look into innovation in automation. I love technology, so I picked the technology piece for myself. We also gave readers a chance to talk about what they see about innovation in automation. We also got a pundit, a practitioner and a professor to talk about innovation issues in automation and in manufacturing as well.

Borrowing stable technologies from the so-called “high-tech” sector has become a staple for innovation in our industry. Just think back over the past few years. Who would have thought 10 years ago that we would have personal computers and their underlying technologies everywhere in manufacturing? Or that we’d be using Ethernet for the bulk of our networking?

All those cool ideas and technologies that technologists discussed in my article (see p. 20) will not be developed and implemented without people. I recently listened to a podcast recording of a conversation with noted investor Warren Buffett and his friend Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corp. That’s where I found the quotes above. But there is more to the equation than just hiring the right people. I’ve seen talented people completely shut down by organizational entropy. What they do is take their creative energies to someplace outside work—or in the worst case, just lose personal motivation altogether.

Tuned out

What really initiated my thinking about this subject was a chance conversation with a professional person. “I put in my eight hours and get out.” Why would a highly trained, dedicated professional get into that sort of attitude situation? In a word, the answer is leadership—or lack thereof. For example, a company takes on projects but doesn’t train the staff adequately to handle the new situation. Seemingly arbitrary rules are imposed with no explanations. Decisions affecting people are made without input from the people who know what’s going on.

Social media blogger Chris Brogan ( wrote, “I’m also interested in educational models for business workers. We’re in a society where HR is less and less about career development and more and more about benefits management. Companies are no longer the stewards of your development and career. How can I help those of us who lived in the cubicle farms, and what can I do to share that information in a way that will empower others?”

While I never expected the human resources department to be my career guide, it could fulfill a talent development function. When I read Jack Welch’s books on his days as GE chief executive, one thing that stood out to me was his close working relationship with the head of HR for exactly that which Brogan bemoans—talent development. Where does your company stand? What are you doing for your own development?

But it’s much more than that. It’s personal, too. Consultant and author David Allen (“Getting Things Done”) relates in his latest e-mail newsletter, “For me, there was only one common denominator about those people in my life. Whether it was the sweet little old teacher in the 4th grade, or the coach that ran my tail off in high school—they all held a vision of my being and doing better than I was currently doing, they held that as a standard when they related to me, and they cared enough about me to hold me to task when I fell short. (They also all did it lovingly, though it didn’t feel like it sometimes!)”

There is too much potential for innovation in 2010 to waste the opportunity. Let’s kick off the decade with a boost for those around us—and go beyond the doldrums of 2009 into a new prosperity.

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