Do we need rogue IT units in the modern manufacturing plant?

My very first ‘misunderstanding’ while employed was with what are known as ‘cowboys’ or rogue IT units. Young, eager to please, and even more eager to perform, I was stopped dead in my tracks by people with different job titles, working in different departments, but working with and controlling IT decisions and inputs. After a few back and forth emails, it became clear to me that just because I worked for the official IT department, did not mean there were no other ‘IT departments’ in the company.

What is a rogue IT unit?

A rogue IT unit is the term given to a team that is running its own IT operations alongside, but separate from, the official IT department of the company. In all manner of work I have done, in a variety of industries, I have always found that there are one or two individuals who insist on running their own IT operations for their plant or department. They have their own contracts with external vendors, they have their own spares and they, more often than not, have their own licence management, completely separate and void of any standards, methodologies and procedures set out by the official IT department.

Are they right or wrong… or left?

This is difficult to answer. If they operate IT on the plant in such a way that it benefits their operations better than the service from the official IT department, then I guess it is hard to argue against their existence. I have worked with excellent rogue units where they follow the standards set by the official department, but they have their own developers, support teams and contract agreements with third-party vendors, who are given access privileges on their network. Then I’ve worked with rogue units that just go way out left-field and almost create an entire IT department just for their plant, ignoring standards, procedures, operating guidelines, etc. These have all manner of repercussions of which the most concerning are security, licence infringements and contracting irregularities. Sometimes the brightest guys work in these rogue units, I’ve found cases where they are better qualified than their counterparts in the official IT department. But, on the other hand, they are mostly what industry calls ‘super users’, – people who know the system well enough to form a rogue IT unit.

If IT in the manufacturing plant is modern, why do we have rogue units?

That is a good question, and one that has many probable answers. I think we find rogue units in many factories because the official IT department either cannot meet the demands of production, or have set a strategy that does not align with the objectives this department has set for the future. It could also be that implementation times by official departments are long, where the urgency of a plant-floor solution requires a more agile approach. Or it could be a financial decision, some plants or departments run legacy systems that cannot advance technologically unless large investments are made, and they simply fall by the wayside when new technology or processes are adopted by the enterprise. But perhaps the simplest reason is that the rogue unit has the appropriate skills and experience for the specific plant, which cannot be found within the official IT department. The rogue unit then springs up and grows from there.

So, now that we know what they are and why they exist, do we need rogue units operating their own vision of IT in manufacturing? It would be irresponsible to say yes, but narrow minded to say no – therefore I say yes and no.

No, we do not need rogue units in a Utopian world, where the official department has internal divisions, like MES and IIT/OT teams. Groups that are part of the official IT department, but somehow meet the needs of each and every manufacturing operation of the enterprise, a mean feat, but doable when focused on specific IT domains from level 0 upwards.

And yes, we might need rogue units when we do not have the luxury of a large established enterprise IT department with an appropriate budget. We might need rogue units when skills and money do not match up, or when legacy systems and specialist support for operational requirements cannot be met by the official department. It might also be good to encourage collaboration between the two, to share their exploits for the benefit of manufacturing excellence.

Whatever the reason, rogue IT is here to stay in manufacturing. So, it might be a good thing if it came about genuinely as a matter of technological circumstance. What we do not need are rogue units operating for nefarious reasons stemming from internal politics or strategic disagreements about IT for business vs IT for manufacturing.