EHS Leaders Face a Digital Inflection Point [MondayMusings]

Earlier this month, I participated in the NAEM EHS and Sustainability Software conference in St. Petersburg, FL. I’ve come to rely on this annual event as the place with highest concentration of people, companies, and content focused on EHS information technology (IT). This year’s event did not disappoint.

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My key takeaways from the event are on digital innovation trends, their impact on Environment, Health, and Safety (EHS) business function and its leaders, and why EHS business leaders have reached a digital inflection point.

Art of the Possible: Real-World Digital Innovation

NAEM Executive Director Carol Singer Neuvelt set the tone for the event by challenging the audience to think about technology’s impact on business performance. A panel discussion on “Using Technology to Save Time, Save Lives and Improve EHS Outcomes,” moderated by Margery Moore drove this point home. The panelists Stephanie Ortiz (BNSF Railway), Sean Petterson (Strong Arm Technologies) and Kelvin Sanborn (General Electric) discussed how their organizations are using advanced digital technologies to improve business performance.

The emphasis of the panel was on the use of novel technologies. Examples cited included ergonomic risk mitigation with smart wearable and Big Data analytics, drones for remote inspection, and intelligent personal protective equipment. The panel did a great job of tying the application of technology to risk mitigation and business results, and the discussion effectively raised awareness of the potential benefits of digital innovation.

Digital Transformation is Coming to EHS Management

EHS 4.0The examples of digital innovation discussed by the panel were impressive. However, they represent only a part of the story. The broader context is that novel technologies such as sensor-equipped wearables, drones, and Big Data analytics are part of the larger trend of Digital Transformation (aka Industry 4.0) sweeping across every sector of manufacturing. Our survey data shows that two-thirds of industrial organizations have already implemented digitization initiatives, or plan to do so soon.

Companies are making substantial investments in applying digital technologies to optimize processes, operations, and performance. Most of the stakes have been focused on core operational areas such as improving asset reliability, efficiency, and product quality. Little has been directed at EHS use cases. However, this is changing rapidly.

EHS Leaders: Heed the Digital Inflection Point

An inflection point can be defined as a time of significant change in a situation; a turning point that will bring change, with either positive or negative results. Today, EHS business leaders are facing an inflection point, fueled by the Digital Transformation trend.

We often talk about technology as an enabler of business processes, management systems, and performance improvement. In the digital era, technology has a higher potential to drive business performance, and industrial organizations are embracing this approach. The critical question for every EHS business leader and professional is how to respond to this digital inflection point.

Technology is NOT the Solution

Let’s be crystal clear. This is not a pitch for EHS business leaders to implement a bunch of cool technology overnight. That approach is not likely to work well. Each organization is at a different level of EHS maturity, including people, process, technology, and culture aspects. Some are leaders, others are laggards. Some may have integrated enterprise IT systems for EHS management, while most are still trying to get by on a mix of point solutions and Microsoft Office products.

What should be common is a vision and strategy of how technology can be used to weave EHS into the business and improve performance. Technology implementation roadmap will be different for each organization. Investments in technology are not likely to be useful unless basic people and process capabilities are in place. LNS Research EHS 4.0 framework describes these attributes, such as strategic alignment, leadership, sound management systems, competency, etc.

Moving Forward on Parallel Paths

When it comes to using technology to enable EHS management, most organizations have a lot of basic blocking and tackling to do. Bulk of the opportunity at hand is in establishing a stable IT foundation upon which digital innovation can thrive. This situation is reflected in the large number of enterprise EHS software vendors and implementation service providers exhibiting at the conference, rather than niche technology providers. We recommend a two-pronged EHS technology strategy: continue to establish an IT foundation, while selectively exploiting advanced technology.

The path forward is to build a robust platform to manage EHS data, processes, and performance. It is easier and cost-effective to accomplish this now with the advent of Cloud-based integrated EHS software delivered on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) subscription basis. It’s possible to start with a focused solution such as incident management, show value, and extend from there. Mobile applications are increasingly necessary to extend the value of software across the enterprise.

What about novel technologies like sensor-equipped wearables, Big Data analytics, drones and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)? There’s no need to wait, and indeed waiting would be a missed opportunity. In parallel to implementing “table-stakes” technology described above, EHS leaders should proactively look for opportunities to use Industry 4.0 technologies to solve specific problems.

Some digital innovations don’t depend on an enterprise EHS IT backbone to deliver value. Perhaps, use virtual reality (VR) tech to improve training. Deploy drones for remote inspections. Use enterprise business intelligence (BI) tools to conduct advanced analysis on a combination of incident and operational data to identify leading indicators. These use cases are amenable as low-cost pilots and can deliver value quickly.

Over time, the two technology paths will tend to converge organically. For example, more EHS data will be available to apply advanced analytics with machine learning for predictive risk management.

LNS Research urges EHS business leaders to develop strategies to take advantage of digital innovation. The digital inflection point created by Industry 4.0 and corporate Digital Transformation initiatives makes this mandatory for EHS to thrive. Success will depend on how EHS can add value to the business by leveraging technology, whether novel or not.

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