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Prediction 2020: The IT-OT civil war remains the CIO’s biggest impediment to digital transformation.

  • For at least the next three years, CIOs in manufacturing and asset-intensive industries will not be able to avoid the wreckage the IT-OT civil war is causing.
  • This will block enterprises from realizing the full value of their digital transformation investments.

Leading indicators

Some of the indicators that the IT-OT civil war is developing into tribalism in your organization are:

  • Operations technical staff deliberately putting technology in place that violates company IT policy
  • Slow response time by either side for support or information requests from the other side
  • A growing volume of unexpected requests from operations for increased network capacity or Cloud access.


Given Industry 4.0 is going on nine years old and the digital technologies behind it like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Big Data and Analytics, and AR/VR are now well-rooted in the consumer sector, why is Industry 4.0 proving to be such a challenge for so many manufacturers? Is it because of the constant tension between the IT and OT camps? For quite a few of the companies I have interacted with, the answer is yes, IT/OT challenges are slowing the progress in achieving the objectives of Industry 4.0. I have a theory as to why that is and why just knowing why may not be enough to overcome this challenge.

The well-documented reality is that the world is becoming increasingly tribal or partisan. Whether it is Brexit vs. Remain proponents or MAGA fans vs. “Never Trumpers” or the dozens of other societal divides around the globe, people are aligning with their “tribe” more strongly than before, for at least the last half-century. Aligning with socio-political tribes has become extraordinarily partisan and almost fanatical in some realms. The disfunction this causes is obvious. In the US, regardless of whether you are a Democrat or Republican, everyone finds that government is failing to do what the public generally wants, the problem being that what the two sides often want is diametrically opposed. Partisan identity demands complete and absolute fealty with compromise impossible. Both sides live with no progress lest the other side “win.” A lose-lose stalemate is preferred to allowing the other party appearing to win.

Guess what: The difficulties you are having making substantial progress with digitalization might be because a tribal mentality is creeping into the workplace. To understand what tribal identity and tribal mentality are, it is helpful to understand what defines Tribalism. Tribes are considered to be groups of people who have common ancestors, shared lifestyles, interests, or habits. The Wikipedia page for Tribalism, linked above, notes that one of the defining factors for tribes is that they share similar language, backgrounds, beliefs, ethics geography, etc. resulting in extreme in-group loyalty.

The IT and OT tribal divisions are real but so too are the divisions between production and maintenance, engineering and manufacturing, corporate and the plant and many other factions.  Considering these differences minor and of no consequence leads many CIOs in manufacturing and asset-intensive industries to struggle with executing real digital transformation.  A CIO led effort to transform customer interactions or to improve sustainability accountability might be viewed as a success if only the user experience or timeliness of the reporting is taken into account.  Customers interacting with a CRM system might find it “delightful” but if manufacturing can’t make the products no amount of customer friendliness is going to ultimately result in a satisfied customer.  Likewise, tracking and timely reporting of sustainability performance in an industry like mining will be meaningless if the OT systems can’t prevent out of compliance incidents.

It is not all doom and gloom. 

The democratization of technology with advances in the ability to abstract information with virtual machines and through API level integration may help.  However, the CIO and the COO must ensure there is adequate governance in place to avoid anarchy which will only exacerbate the partisanship.

It is likely that for the next three or more years, the IT-OT civil war will continue to exist and, in many companies, grow due to the OT focused part of the business operating isolated from the IT side of the business. One way to assess if your business suffers from CIO OT impotence is to look at the Enterprise Architecture.  If it stops at the ERP or even MES systems and does not reach down to the IIoT devices and control on the factory floor or operational level, then as a CIO many of the digital transformation efforts you are pursuing may face insurmountable obstacles.  At least you are not going to be alone as more than 75% of manufacturing and asset-intensive industries will face IT-OT tribalism issues that will seriously thwart digital transformation efforts.


To beat the odds the savvy CIO will put in place initiatives like:

    • Extending their EA scope to include OT
    • Form IT-OT advisory or coordinating teams to start breaking down tribal behavior
    • Foster cross-fertilization of IT staff into operational units and bring engineers into the IT organization

The views and opinions in this analysis are my own and do not represent positions or opinions of The Analyst Syndicate. Read more on the Disclosure Policy.