Effective Communication in the Data Center
An extreme approach may be needed.
I am constantly bombarded by information communicated to me from an ever-increasing variety of sources, and I’m not the only one. Fifty years ago, modern communications equipment consisted mainly of telephones (as in land lines), radio, broadcast TV (ABC, NBC, and CBS), and yes, the telegraph. Calendars were made of paper and hung on walls where you wrote reminders on them with pens (sorry, no such thing as a stylus). The news was literally delivered once a day in the form of an actual newspaper and presented in summary during 30-minute TV and radio news casts shown daily at breakfast, dinner, and late night. People wrote letters with pen and paper and mailed them to each other. It took days to get a response.
As I write this, I have a laptop connected to three computer screens running two internet browsers and 17 open windows, tabs, sheets, apps, etc. I also have a smart phone that routinely notifies me of new texts, e-mails, “breaking news,” phone calls, voice messages, etc. In the background I can hear a TV set on some 24-hour cable news station. All are connected to a FiOS internet connection with a modest 50 Mbps download speed. My car just sent my phone a monthly status update (oil life, tire pressures, recent MPG, and even checked to make sure there are no outstanding recall notices). My friend’s car practically drives itself.
MORE IS NOT BETTER
The future will certainly see this trend continuing. Between edge-computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), we are continuing to bring more technology, automation, and information to the individual everywhere. Information overload is not only an ever-present danger, it is the new norm. This is clearly becoming a situation where more is not better. I say that because much of the information communicated has little or no value to me, and some is false and possibly dangerous. Consider spam, pop-up ads, robo-calls, viruses and malware, etc. TV monitors and screens are everywhere in offices, lobbies, bars and restaurants, city streets, convenient stores, and other public and private spaces. Many gasoline pumps now have built-in TV screens that start playing miscellaneous news and advertisements as soon as you start pumping gas. It’s like everyone and everything wants your attention all the time.
The same can be true for managing critical facilities. The amount of data generated and information communicated on a continuous basis is astounding. With full digital communication employed on critical equipment there is a plethora of data available at the click of a mouse. Chillers, generators, switchgear, and UPS modules have built-in processors, memory, I/O cards, touchscreens, etc., such that each is a small and specialized computer full of settings, configurations, trends, logs, and menus. All of this gets sent to and from facility monitoring and control systems for dissemination, analysis, trending, archiving, and annunciation. Some advanced facilities essentially have a small facilities data center to operate and manage the enterprise-level data center, and others have just incorporated and embedded the facilities IT-related aspects within the overall enterprise-level IT operations.
The documentation aspect of managing facilities has evolved as well. You still see facility command centers with binders of O&M manuals, catalogues, and full-size drawings but many facilities have at least partially migrated to electronic documents. And as most manufacturers now post their product support technical documentation online, why keep hard copies on a shelf anyway? Even the site-specific documentation is evolving in previously unexpected ways. The increasing use of building information management (BIM) software applications coupled with 3-D imagery and virtual reality goggles makes touring a facility possible without leaving your chair. A bar code and a tablet can put all the relevant documentation and information in a technician’s hands for the respective equipment he needs to address. Access to necessary information is less of a problem now. The new problem is identifying the necessary information from all the extraneous data that inundates us.
THE CHALLENGE IS REAL
The key is to communicate effectively. Effective communication occurs when the message sent is the same as the message received and in a timely manner. Research has categorized various barriers to effective communication such as physical barriers (think loud equipment rooms), physiological (poor hearing or eyesight), ambiguity (words with two meanings, lack of context, etc.), and the linguistic ability (or inability) of the recipient. A more recent barrier is related to “technological multi-tasking and absorbency” (Wikipedia – Communication, Barriers to effectiveness”). This phenomenon occurs when someone is in a state of cognitive multi-tasking as they receive a near constant barrage of unrelated reminders, alerts, messages, and information vying for attention. Many of today’s messages are condensed for maximum impact (or “effect”) allowing an even greater amount and variety of information to be absorbed in an instance. And the “messengers” often try to make their unsolicited communication as attention-grabbing as possible with flashing lights, electronic beeps, catch-phrases, and anything else to distract your attention away from whatever else you might be focused on.
The problem with multi-tasking is that none of the tasks get 100% attention. And in this context, we are referring to cognitive multi-tasking. Trying to concentrate on multiple, unrelated topics, conversations, or activities at the same time. Multi-tasking coupled with information overload is a recipe for human error. The TV commercial where a young man walks into a kitchen wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles waving his hands and tells the computer to order a pizza, the refrigerator to display the weather, the trash can to turn on the TV (which replies “my pleasure”), and requests the ice maker to find a dog sitter (and to make ice) is amusing. It’s also amusing when, in the same commercial, a pizza-delivery drone subsequently flies in, announces “pizza delivered,” and drops it on the floor while the young man is oblivious wearing the VR goggles and waving his hands; and it reflects a growing reality. It increasingly takes less and less thought, effort, and time to accomplish increasingly complex and critical tasks. This can lead to cognitive complacency, where focus is lost on the critical task at hand due to a cultural norm where we are constantly shuffling our attention from one task to another, i.e., multi-tasking.
ESTABLISH AN OPTIMAL ENVIRONMENT
Work environments, especially for critical facilities, need to be conducive to effective communication. In many cases, this needs to be a situational awareness issue. When a critical or important message or conversation needs to occur, unrelated sources of distraction need to be eliminated or mitigated. It should be clear to all involved that there is a distinct difference between informal and social conversations vs. formal or official communications. In most meetings I attend today it is typical for participants to have their laptop in front of them along with a smart phone. Often questions need to be repeated because the recipient was multi-tasking, AKA not paying full attention. It becomes increasingly valuable to solicit clear feedback from your audience on what message, directive, or other communication was received to ensure it matches with the message that was sent. This is the key to effective communication.
Critical facility control rooms are typically engineered and designed to establish an optimal environment where operators can focus on their duties with the most relevant information projected or otherwise prominently displayed, and with minimal distractions and barriers to effective communication. When I taught nuclear power plant control room operations, we required the control room operators to use verbatim responses. If a command was given to “open valve A,” the operator would first reply back “I understand I am to open valve A.” Only after the communication was verbally confirmed would the action be taken. It was a bit extreme, but it was quite effective.