Mixed Messages

Dec. 1, 2004
We need to talk. Those four little words can strike fear in the hearts of mere mortals. Whether it’s said by your spouse, your boss, or your doctor—you know that whatever comes next can’t be good.

Yet sometimes it seems that all we do is talk. On the phone, online, at work, in our cars—we’re bombarded with visual, verbal and electronic messages. Look at the glut of e-mails. Worldwide, 30 billion to 35 billion e-mail messages are sent daily, and the typical worker deals with an average of 200 e-mails a day.

But are we really communicating any better? And if humans are having a hard time with message overload, consider our poor machines. Recent data cites 800 million Internet-connected users worldwide, but more than 50 billion machines with electronic chips, each of which could be monitored on a digital network.

So how do we figure out the best ways to communicate from human-to-human, human-to-machine and machine-to-machine? Here are some tips.

Tip 1: Keep it simple.

The most effective communicators keep their messages simple, concise and direct. There is no room for confusion, interpretation and second-guessing.

During a recent e-mail exchange, involving a number of colleagues and a long string of messages, a key point was misinterpreted. Easy to do, given the amount of information that was flying back and forth. “This is how wars get started,” noted a coworker.

Whether you’re the team leader for a multi-

department task force, or you’re responsible for networking disparate machines, components and systems, avoid data confusion by keeping things simple.

Tip 2: Know your audience.

Messages must be tailored to their audiences. In business, you need to communicate with internal and external customers—make sure you’re using their language.

In this issue’s interview article, “Getting the Big Returns,” Dick Cunningham, of Johns Manville, stresses the importance of using the same measurement metrics as your customers. “If you measure rejects in parts per thousand, but your customer measures you in truckloads, you may have a serious quality issue, where every truckload is rejected because it has a bad part.”

Tip 3: Leave an audit trail.

When I worked as a design engineer, one of our golden rules was, “Avoid verbal orders.” Changes had to be carefully documented and implemented with strict control procedures, or chaos would ensue.

While everyone understands the need for an audit trail, it’s too easy to tweak the system “just this one time.” Ultimately, you will lose control of your process, causing quality problems and regulatory noncompliance.

Integration standards, such as the ISA S88 (batch control), ISA S95 (enterprise integration) and Web Services, provide audit trail solutions. See the articles, beginning on pp. 31 and 41, for more.

Tip 4: One size does not fit all.

While communication standards are good, you have to choose the one that fits your application. In Editor Gary Mintchell’s article starting on p. 24, engineers at a nuclear power generating facility joked about how they just needed 32 bytes of information every four hours, yet they put in a Wi-Fi system capable of 10 megabits per second. As a better solution, they moved to the Zigbee wireless standard. For a good overview of networking standards and device description languages, see the article beginning on p. 36.

Tip 5: Except sometimes, one size does fit all.

The exceptions to the “one size” rule are the universal data models that are starting to be developed, which will integrate disparate systems at the data level. The new OPC Unified Architecture, due to be released in 2005, is one such standard. Says OPC Chief Architect Rashesh Mody, in the article that starts on p. 47, “A unified name space is a huge benefit. The user can just say, ‘Give me the speed of the mixer,’ and not have to worry about how to get the data out of different APIs.”

Stay tuned for more developments that will help you communicate better—with your coworkers, your customers and your control systems.

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