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Are IT and operational technology (OT) moving closer together?

Few areas of the typical business are unaffected by corporate IT processes in 21st century Britain. Such is the range of tools available to companies through their PCs and internal networks, new roles for IT are being discovered all the time. Information technology is used to boost productivity, drive revenue, reduce costs and support communication across all business arms. It has vast organisational benefits, and can help to streamline and speed-up processes which were traditionally carried out offline. As such, the suggestion that IT and the neighbouring world of operational technology are now converging should come as little surprise.

Independent analyst Gartner makes this claim, expressing the view that the closer alignment of IT and OT has become inevitable. The firm claimed that integration of information processes and physical-equipment-oriented technology leads to enhanced information for better decision making, lower risks, a faster resolution to company projects. Business leaders recognise the benefits, and as such are allowing IT the freedom to breathe and extend beyond its original confines. This is being witnessed across a number of sectors, including healthcare, transportation, defence, energy, aviation, manufacturing, engineering, energy and utilities, the analyst firm noted. "IT leaders who are impacted by the convergence of IT and OT platforms should consider the value and risk of pursuing alignment between IT and OT, as well as the potential to integrate the people, tools and resources used to manage and support both technology areas," it added.

Kristian Steenstrup, research vice-president at Gartner, noted that the nature of the OT system is changing, so that the underlying technology - such as platforms, software, security and communications – is taking on more of the characteristics of mainstream IT. He said that this gives a stronger justification for IT groups to contribute to OT software management, creating a new IT/OT alignment. This could be in the form of standards, enterprise architecture, support and security models, software configuration practices, and information and process integration, Mr Steenstrup suggested.

Indeed, a shared set of standards and platforms across IT and OT has the potential to reduce costs in many areas of software management, he argued; in addition, it minimises the risks coming from reducing malware intrusion and internal errors. "Cyber security can be enhanced if IT security teams are shared, seconded or combined with OT staff to plan and implement holistic IT-OT security," the expert noted. He said that while 'security through obscurity' may have been an acceptable policy older-generation OT platforms, due to their proprietary architectures and limited connection to IT, it is no longer possible to rely on this maxim. OT platforms have evolved to use commercial generic infrastructures, meaning security can no longer be treated as a relative afterthought.

For chief information officers (CIOs), the IT/OT integration process may be seen as offering an opportunity for them to extend their influence within the organisation. IT leaders who are able to manage the convergence process effectively may suddenly see the scope of their authority increase. They will be required to cater for the needs of planning and co-ordinating a new generation of operational technologies alongside existing IT systems, ensuring as smooth a transition as possible. "CIOs and other IT leaders need to evaluate and realign their roles and relationships to maximise the value of converging IT and OT," said Mr Steenstrup. "CIOs have a great opportunity to lead their enterprises in exploiting information flows from digital technologies. By playing this role, they can better enable decisions that optimise business processes and performance."

Some companies may attempt to resist this natural evolution within the business, and attempt to maintain IT and OT as distinct, mutually-exclusive entities. However, such an approach looks short-sighted to say the least. If a modern business invests in technology without the involvement of the CIO or IT department, there is a risk of duplication of effort, internal tension between different arms of the business, and ultimately the emergence of technology 'islands'. Whether individuals like it or not, IT now overlaps – or has a significant influence upon - most other business functions, and its voice has to be heard.