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How can Digital Twins help break down Data and Communication Silos?
Data silos cause problems for organizations, no matter how big or small. Digital Twins can negate the effect of silos when properly implemented.
Silos are one of those pesky problems that plague many organizations today. It is characterized by an inability or reluctance to share information across different divisions within a company. It is insidious in that it is not immediately fatal. It quietly brews within the organization and over time, erodes trust and performance within the company. Harvard Business Review estimates that in extreme cases, silos can drive up costs by as much as 80% and often makes it impossible to implement new initiatives.
Silos are for grains, not for humans.
Silos are an emblematic sight in pastoral landscapes. They are feeding our livestock and ultimately, our offspring when breakfast comes. However, their informational counterparts are feeding large communication disparities between individuals and groups at all levels of a company. An information silo is characterized as a business division or group of employees within an organization that fails to communicate freely or effectively with other groups, including management.
At the origins of the plague
Silos can take many forms and emerge from several underlying issues. In some cases, it may be a political issue, arising from a clash of egos or competition amongst senior management, especially in divisions with overlapping responsibilities. This creates unhealthy competition and an erosion of trust, causing a reluctance to share data among company managers.
Sometimes, it is not a political issue but a by-product of a company’s outdated structural policies (especially true for legacy companies who haven’t kept up to date on optimizing their information flow) or simply a lack of “top-down” communication of the company’s vision.
Other times, the limitations are physical. Examples are outdated or incorrectly designed IT frameworks, being locked in with a specific Software Vendor (which limits abilities), or perhaps lack of IT capabilities to encourage safe and secure data transfer.
Silos are often systemic, shaped by the work culture within and around the company. Corporate ecosystems lacking information transparency and accessibility are fertile grounds for them.
Problems that Silos Cause
Silos can lead to the duplication of efforts, either through ignorance of what the other department is doing or through willful competition between business units that have overlapping functions.
For instance, it is not uncommon to witness several departments within the same company charged with inspecting the same sites or facilities for different purposes. Instead, their initiatives could be combined to extract the necessary information at a fraction of the effort.
Silos can also lead to the withholding of critical information which other departments may need to accomplish their roles effectively. This translates to inefficiencies within the company and ultimately, drives up costs, erodes reaction time, and reputation in front of the client.
This is particularly true when, for example, two design divisions within the same company happen to compete for an engineering design project, like an offshore drilling platform. This even happens after they come to the realization that one of their “sister” divisions is also responding to the same tender. Moreover, it often comes to light that the company’s senior management was kept in the dark about the whole process. This often leads to neither division being successful in their tender bid, and to the client having a negative view of the company’s top management, pointing a finger at the internal lack of communication.
Digital Twins are silos' worst nightmare
By essence, Digital Twins bring transparency. From field technicians to upper management, anybody can look at the same information, at the same time. Digital Twins are often visually stimulating, which fosters understanding and a common vision. However, if wrongly implemented or used, a Digital Twin can become its own silo.
Digital Twins discourage sole proprietorship
Much has been written about ways and means of breaking down silos. But the one recurring theme across the board is to foster collaboration within the organization. The implementation of digital twins not only encourages collaboration but, when designed correctly, they inherently disrupt the formation of silos as they begin to form.
Firstly, the Digital Twin (and its embedded information) is considered part of the overall Asset or Project. Therefore, no division can have exclusive control of the data. For example, Engineering cannot simply deny the Audit team for any reason, since records are made publicly visible to other teams and to management. In fact, the people who usually do have control over permissions are typically the Asset or Project managers. These are the very people who have it in their best interest to see to it that the Asset or Project succeeds. Furthermore, companies can adopt and mandate SOPs pertaining to Digital Twin access, so there is no ambiguity (and hence, no arguing over) as to who should have access to the data. All this negates any access-related political issues which may not have the project's best interest in mind.
Team management setup should make it easy for project managers to define roles and access controls for the digital twin and its embedded information, using a hybrid of Role-Based Access Control and Attribute-Based Access Control frameworks. It ensures that the right people have access to the right information at all times without politics getting in the way.
Secondly, a Digital Twin can be designed to encourage different entities to interact with one another through the Digital Twin platform by serving as the interface and conduit for data transfer.
Consider this scenario case of a pump on an offshore rig that is performing below specification. Real-time sensors or site personnel can track the performance of the pump and digitally send it to the data layer, reflected in the Digital Twin. AI and smart analytical tools can work to suggest potential solutions to the problem. The onshore operations team picks up the alert via the Digital Twin and notifies the engineering team who then retrieves the performance specifications via the Digital twin. Engineering is now fully equipped to make an assessment of the situation. They decide that the pump needs to be replaced and upload the remedial actions to be taken back into the Digital Twin. At this point, Procurement can now retrieve specifications and vendor information of the pump via the digital twin so that they can track down the parts. Meanwhile, field services have been alerted of the situation and are now reviewing the documentation and repair plan via the Digital Twin. The Pump gets delivered and installed without much fuss because everyone involved got information in a timely manner. The system is now operating normally, which Operations can now see through the Digital Twin.
In this scenario, you have multiple divisions working together. Each has different roles but all need to work together to solve the problem. Each can access and exchange the most current information via the digital twin. There was no need to beg for drawings, track down long-lost documents, or fear that the information was incorrect or obsolete. All the usable information is accessible through the well-implemented digital twin.
As you can see, Digital Twins can be purposefully implemented in a manner that compels different groups to interact with one another, thereby inherently negating the effect of silos.
Can Digital Twins become Digital Silos?
Implementing and adopting Digital Twins is not an easy path. They can suffer from the same political, structural, or physical issues as regular information systems.
First, digital twins need to be integrated into the enterprise documentation system to avoid physical silos. Otherwise, they will soon become disconnected from the rest of the company and will compete with other tools, especially those already in place for a long time. This happens when the Digital Twin works in close circuits and when the content uploaded is not simultaneously updated on other documentation systems.
Second, Digital Twin solutions need to be supported by champions within the company to raise awareness of the beneficial use cases. Digital Twins are synchronized at a specified frequency and fidelity. Thus, Digital Twins can bring a certain probative value, especially in the case of high-fidelity visual twins. That visual record can put users at the forefront of their responsibilities if an issue or accident arises on a worksite. As such, Digital Twins will sometimes be considered a threat, and users will be reluctant to use or update them. This can generate a political silo within the company, which will result in the creation of parallel or uncharted information flows that are not visible in the Digital Twin.
Finally, Digital Twins can not be just the tool of the elite. Companies need to come up with agile policies to avoid structural silos. Digital Twin solutions must be adopted by a large portion of the company to be effective in the long term. Therefore, they need to be intuitive and simple to use to remove any barrier to entry.
To avoid creating new silos, Digital Twin adopters should seek solutions that are transparent not only by essence but also by design. They should focus on finding nimble solutions that can easily communicate with legacy databases and have intuitive interfaces and tools that bolster large adoption rates.
Next, we'll show real-life business examples of how digital twins actually work to foster communication and collaboration. Tune in for the second part of this article where we talk about how to implement Digital Twin technology and grow it into a thriving ecosystem.
This series is taken from the Future Digital Twin's panel discussion, The Digital Twin Conundrum: Breaking down the Data and Communication Silos.