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Cognite CEO: If 2020 forever changed asset-intensive industries, what's in store for 2021?

With 2021 off and running, here are three key priorities I see as critical for us to keep 2020’s digitalization momentum going strong in the new year. 

I doubt that regression is on the 2021 agenda for anyone in asset-intensive industries. We have reaped the rewards of digitalization in 2020, largely out of necessity invoked by the Covid-19 crisis. But the year ahead offers the opportunity to redefine asset-intensive operations more proactively, rather than out of a state of urgency. Our eyes have been opened to the promise of data, and the time is now to capitalize on this.

This is easier said than done. The simplest thing to do is to go back to what’s comfortable, especially in the fallout of a global crisis. But I would advise industry leaders to reflect on priorities for 2021. This will be a pivotal year for energy, manufacturing and utilities, and these industries are, at this very moment, well-positioned to make moves to reinvent themselves. I believe three key priorities should be embraced. 

Priority 1: Put DataOps on your org charts

More industrial companies are waking up to the power of data, and its ability to inform decision-making, transform operations, and enhance sustainability. This evolution has sparked a new discipline called DataOps, which typically comprises a team of data experts (think: data scientists, analysts, architects, and the like) who exist to “provide tools, process and organizational structures to support data focused enterprise.” DataOps teams are tasked to bring data to the data customers, internal and external, and make their data do more for the company. 

There is much data to be extracted across asset-intensive industries today. One of the main challenges has been to liberate the data from its system silos and empower people to apply it. With DataOps, an organization can activate the data to create business value. In the energy sector that could mean applying the data to enable remote operations to a greater extent. For manufacturing, it could power smarter storage, while in the utility industry it could help build smarter grids. 

The real value of an organization’s data will emerge only once it adopts a data management strategy that embraces DataOps. This will serve as a strong signal to the entire organization that collecting, sharing and acting on the data, at scale, is key to realizing greater value for the company. 

Priority 2: Form tribes of data citizens

It’s a mistake to assume that you must be a data scientist to work with data. To reach a level of digital maturity, everyone in industry should be enabled to innovate on their own accord, with diverse data. This is like when the computer was first introduced to the corporate world. Staff had been operating perfectly well using typewriters, paper reports and internal couriers. Then giant computing machines were installed and considered far too advanced for the average employee. These machines were to be operated only by experts. But of course the rest is history: the machines got smaller, the operating systems got more intuitive, and computing has touched every aspect of our work and our lives.

I believe we are on a similar journey with industrial data.

The purpose of technology is to reduce complexity and while we all are increasingly able to speak “data,” it's just as important that data speaks “human.” We need to present data in a way that enables domain experts to understand, interpret, and manipulate it. Just like in private life, I'm able to connect my smart watch to Spotify, not because I have any coding skills but because technology providers reduce complexity and empower me to do it through a simple visual interface. Industry should do the same for its users. This could mean deploying simple dashboards to visualize data. It could mean using existing tools to take advantage of the data, and it could mean low code platforms to accelerate application development. If we can put the data on every device and every desk across industries, and make it useful for all, it has the potential to be just as transformative as the move from paper to the PC.

Priority 3: Secure a more sustainable future through data

The concept of shared value says that companies can “gain a competitive advantage by including social and environmental considerations in their strategies.” The argument is that capitalism is not in competition with sustainability, but rather the two, hand-in-hand, can be the seeds for innovation and growth. 

Though the concept is decades-old and is increasingly ingrained in the corporate world, we have yet to see industries like utilities, energy and manufacturing take it to full fruition. It’s no secret in these industries that profitability and sustainability have often felt like an interminable tug-of-war contest in which there are no victors. But stakeholder and financial pressure continues to mount, and both sides are expected to win – they want both profit and efficiency, growth and sustainability. And, provided that data is deployed broadly and effectively, it’s in these supposed dichotomies that the vision of shared value can be realized.

Over that past few years, we’ve seen incredible data use cases from across the utilities, manufacturing, and energy industries. Data has transformed maintenance in energy companies, reducing frequency of fixes and number of shutdowns, thus cutting overall waste. Data can identify energy leaks and find more efficient means of energy use in operations, thereby reducing overall carbon emissions. And in the transition to renewables, data has been the driver for minimizing the impact of powerful wind turbines on local wildlife. Data serves as a key asset in power and utilities, especially as renewable forms of energy are brought into the mix. The grid must be smarter and more agile to maintain the balance and prevent blackouts. In manufacturing, operations are being transformed by robotics, contributing to reduced operating costs and more efficient operations. 

There is no doubt that investors today have greener expectations. Emissions must be reduced. Waste must be cut. Environmental impact must be minimized. And people must stay safer. These expectations will only be realized if we can successfully deploy the data and make it do more for our industry. And it doesn’t have to come at the expense of your bottom line; quite the opposite. It’s time to unearth data’s shared value and set your priorities straight for 2021, building on the digital wave that’s already rolling fast across your industry. 

John Markus

Follow John Markus on LinkedIn for more industry and technology insights

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