Communicating in the Digital Age

Dec. 1, 2004
As a “geeky,” introverted, engineering type as an undergraduate, the offer to bail out of speech class in order to help fill a section of “small group discussion” class and still fulfill the requirement was an answer to prayers.

The speech class wouldn’t have killed me, but it was serendipitous that I took that discussion class. I really learned a lot about group dynamics and presenting ideas in an informal setting. This is a skill critical to everyone reading this editorial and it certainly has helped me in my career.

Talking about communications in an automation setting promptly brings to mind ideas of technology. Fieldbus networks, Ethernet, OPC and other electronic methods of communication involve control to-sensors or actuators, software application-to application or other non-human communication. Another communication method termed “machine-to-machine,” or M2M, has arisen from the cellular industry. Some think this use of cell phone technology is revolutionary, but really it is an extended wide area network for remote data acquisition applications. Not only is it a really extended network, but it is also inexpensive relative to alternatives. This means that intelligent people can find many beneficial uses for this technology, especially when combined with intelligent sensing networks and communications built into machinery.


Enough of machine-to-machine. What about person-to-person? Will that become obsolete? I sincerely doubt that. Although we have automated much decision making, business success still comes down to intelligent human decisions. These come most often as a result of discussing problems and listening to employees, customers and other stakeholders.

One of the people whom I interviewed made a very important comment in the discussion of his project. It concerned this human-to-human communication. He has implemented an advanced software program to monitor process control loops and determine when they are acting abnormally. The program does what it is supposed to do (I suppose that’s a story in and of itself, given the way software sometimes performs). But the benefit to the plant only happened when the teams met to discuss information obtained and formed action plans to fix the problems. Human communication makes it happen.


Automation is important, but the human factor is still primary. Today’s manufacturing requires a higher order of human interaction than in the 20th century.

An example of human-to-human communication using technology is the Weblog phenomenon. I spent election night checking out several “blogs” and found Drudge to be superior to CNN in figuring out what was happening as the votes were counted. The really cool thing about blogs is that they engender two-way communication. The blogger posts thoughts with the idea that readers will reply with their thoughts. Check out my Weblog at http://radio. If something I say spurs a thought, hit the comment link and post a comment. I’ll reply to all.

Another part of the blogging culture is RSS feeds. Really Simple Syndication is a new Web Service based on eXtensible Markup Language (XML) that automatically sends a description and a Web link to your news aggregator. Yahoo, NewsGator and Radio Userland are some of the providers of these aggregators. I receive hourly updates from sources like “The New York Times,” “Slashdot” and “Infoworld,” along with favored blogs. Then I batch read the news I want. I’m looking forward to the day when Automation World feeds can be automatically sent to you via RSS.