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Engaging the disengaged

Changes in how younger people think are influencing how companies design products. Video: Peter Zornio explains elements of Emerson’s development direction.

November 01, 2012

A few weeks ago Peter Zornio (chief strategic officer, Emerson Process Management) was explaining that Emerson is consciously changing its products to simplify how people interact with them. The notion of human-centered design has been going on for some time at the company, and Emerson is not alone in this direction, but he made the point that shifts in workforces are happening globally and not always for the same reasons in every area.

The idea that going forward there will be fewer experienced operators is widely accepted and seen as an inevitability. The more complicated question though may be if individuals coming into process industries now and in the near future will ever equal the retiring generation in engagement with the job. Various sources have suggested that younger people coming into the workforce simply do not have the interest to know what’s going on in the process. While they may learn how to make the plant run by interfacing with the HMI in much the same way they might engage with a video game, the idea that they will make a serious effort to understand what’s happening under the covers and in the pipes may not happen. As Zornio points out, the trick will be to make those people realize there is actual equipment and product behind that screen with potentially serious consequences for bad decisions.

This trend has many possible effects, and few of them are good. I was chatting with a system integrator recently who lamented that newer engineers don’t see the big picture. The case in point was small troubleshooting situation. The engineer kept trying to fix a problem by sifting through the code looking for a software glitch rather than step back and take a more systematic analysis. The problem turned out to be a malfunctioning limit switch, but it never occurred to the engineer that it might be hardware-related.

Sadly, I can’t offer any immediate solutions, but it’s something that will continue as a larger discussion as people in all segments of our industries come to grips with these changes. On the other hand, for individuals wanting to break in, it suggests ways in which a given individual can make a difference. If you can be the individual that shows curiosity and initiative, it will set you apart and increase your effectiveness as an employee.

Peter Welander,

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