IT, OT and IIoT: Is Terminology Dividing Us?

The terms “Information Technology” (IT) and “Operations Technology” (OT) have come into common use as a means of differentiating between the computers, networks and associated devices in manufacturing and operations and those employed for typical business solutions. Although the IT term has been with us for decades, the OT term has become popular much more recently. It has been loosely defined as “… a category of hardware and software that monitors and controls how physical devices perform.” Hasn’t a very similar definition been traditionally applied to the term “automation?” If so, then how is OT different than automation? The OT term may be “old wine in new bottles,” or perhaps the above definition isn’t adequate.

There is another new trend and associated term to deal with. It is the “Industrial Internet of Things” or IIoT. Also referred to as Industrial Internet, it has been defined as “… incorporating machine learning and big data technology, harnessing the sensor data, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and automation technologies.” (Machine learning and big data are themselves topical subjects that appear often in industry journals and magazines.)

For each of these domains or subject areas, many of the basic computing and communications technologies have been with us for years, although IIoT-related developments may be applying them in new and interesting ways. New technologies are also emerging, particularly in the area of communications and networking.

Labels like IT, OT and IIoT can be useful for descriptive purposes, and to define specific communities. However, this comes with a risk of placing more emphasis on the differences than the commonalities. A possible unfortunate side effect is that dependencies, implications, and challenges may be overlooked. The common fundamental concepts behind IT, OT and IIoT can also correspond to common challenges. Examples include the needs for improved cybersecurity or comprehensive management of complex technology portfolios. With a sufficiently broad perspective it makes little sense to address these and related challenges within a limited context.

If operational systems in manufacturing and processing industries use many of the same or similar technologies that are employed in business or commercial IT solutions, and if the concepts and technologies used in IIoT are applicable to some degree to industrial automation, then why shouldn’t there be more collaboration and cooperation between these domains? If such collaboration is desirable, then what are the barriers or impediments?

Often it comes down to a simple lack of awareness. Those who are working with “emerging” topics such as IIoT may not even be aware of groups or organizations who are focused on more traditional topics such as industrial automation. Conversely, those immersed in traditional disciplines may not have the time or motivation to tracking new trends, or understanding their full implications. If the lack of awareness is the first and most fundamental barrier, then we can address it through communication and outreach. One example of this is a recently opened dialog between the International Society for Automation (ISA) and the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC).

Awareness is a prerequisite to collaboration and cooperation. We simply have to get past the labels, and encourage people to engage around common and shared challenges and concerns.


  1. Right on, Eric. Especially, it is time to move beyond IT/OT convergence and actually converge the terms. The teams may be in different areas charged with different tasks, but they really are both using digital technology to further business goals. I’ve been playing with words (both Engineering Technology, which I saw at the forum, and Enterprise Technology recall memories of ET and calling home). Dell recently used the term BT–Business Technology.

    Whatever we call it, certainly it’s all about putting technology into the service of corporate goals.

  2. As newer internet use cases like IIoT are proven effective and valuable, will they too will become the norm and just another part of the internet as perceived by common folk?

    We’ve seen smart phones and cameras merge into mainstream internet but not so much for smart electricity meters.

    Where as most automobile and medical device applications need to interact with consumer market stakeholder, we may discover not so much exposure is needed for a majority of industrial automation use cases.

  3. I personally do not like the term OT. As you indicated the generally accepted definition sounds exactly like a definition of automation. But the term OT has a tendency to reduce the automation domain to just another application or set of IT infrastructure which it is not. The skills and knowledge required are broader and most industries have a different set of regulations and best practices.

    As you say some of the challenges are common but some are different. Therefore the solutions for different applications of digital technology will be different in some cases. Professional and respectful dialog and learning on both sides is required.

    Perhaps this language is driven by a need to come up with the next big idea but by being big it misses the nuances of each different application.

  4. Great points and I agree the two worlds have a lot in common, at least in terms of the “T.” How to staff these roles becomes a little more complicated and must be considered as we begin to leverage the new data streams. OT or Automation professionals often are relied upon for and focus on the “O.” Automation Engineers and Automation Technicians will often have obtained more Operational knowledge then process engineers and operators due to the nature of their work. Depending on the design of their role, they may have little bandwidth to expand more into the “I.” We must work together and I believe necessity will bring new tools to assist in the task. Now to mix it up even more… Divisions between Process Automation and Process Control are becoming unclear and I recall that in a Logistics Engineering course I took years ago, the term Automation was almost exclusively used in reference to automating business systems – all IT. Go figure!

  5. Good article Eric! I agree with your comment about lack of awareness. I would also add lack of interest / motivation as well as exposure. More and more interactions between these two worlds are necessary to create a robust and sustainable ecosystem.