Peak performance: Changing workforce, energy issues highlight user summit

By Control Engineering Staff September 26, 2006

Chicago, IL— An aging workforce, collaborative employees, energy supply and demand issues, and innovative technology were among the topics scrutinized under the umbrella of ‘New Ideas for Peak Performance’ at SmartSignal ‘s recent Summit 2006 conference. The third annual running of the two-day event, held at Chicago’s Swissôtel last week, brought together some 250 executives and senior managers from many industries to exchange ideas and strategies.

Opening the two-day gathering, Jim Gagnard, SmartSignal president and CEO, cited three key business: the imminent retirement of baby boomers, a shortage a graduate engineers, and the changing role of the workforce. Calling the collective factors ‘a semi-perfect storm,’ Gagnard noted a shift towards specialization has prompted increased communication needs and led to a rise of ‘collaborative’ jobs.

‘We are seeing a new kind of employee,’ said Gagnard, ‘one who searches, monitors, coordinates, analyzes, and decides.’ Collaborative employees interact with other employees, customers, and suppliers, and make complex decisions based on knowledge, judgment, experience, and instinct, he went on.

Gagnard said that technology must complement collaborative employee skills and that technology priorities must attract and support a collaborative workforce. ‘Leverage the strengths of your employees,’ he challenged attendees, by promoting high quality interactions and by not only doing your best but doing what’s necessary.

Also at the summit, Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) focused on energy security. Discussions cited energy as among the 10 biggest risks to the world’s economy. Economic consequences to energy markets include price, politics, and environment. Future influences include the power of markets, the often-underestimated and unanticipated power of technology, and relentless power of geopolitics. Energy growth in China will be huge compared to the United States, with greater concerns about energy’s role in supporting growth. Iraq, Nigeria, and Venezuela are among regions where problems have led to reductions in oil production, continuing energy insecurity, and supply anxiety.

CERA noted that technology will help; 10% of U.S. gasoline will come from ethanol by 2009; geo-thermal energy sources and wind power are now serious issues. Those in the U.S. generally don’t believe we are running out of oil, discussions noted; some foresee an expanding supply and a 20-25% increase in capacity in the foreseeable future.

Providing a closer look at the energy situation in China, Dr. Jun Zha, chief technology officer, energy IT group, FibrLink, the communication and infrastructure subsidiary of State Grid Corp. of China, told attendees that China is ‘big!’ To achieve a 10% annual growth in GDP, he said, the country needs to add 50,000 MW of generation capacity a year, or about one new 1,000 MW plant a week.

Dr. Jun said that power blackouts are a daily experience in many parts of China and that in summer, some factories shut down to reduce demand, while government buildings set air conditioning temperatures to 26 °C (nearly 79 °F) to conserve. There is lots of pressure on the Chinese government to do something, he admits. Thirteen new power plants, he said, smiling, are being built without all their approvals because there is such a need. ‘We are not afraid of trying new things,’ he adds. ‘We are afraid of not trying new things.’

Watch for more highlights from SmartSignal Summit 2006 at the Control Engineering Web site.

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—Control Engineering Daily News Desk
Jeanine Katzel , senior editor