Hi-Tech Hi-Touch Attunement - Realizing Operational Success

The need to address ever changing water efficiency and regulatory standards presents both opportunities and challenges for workers in the water industry. Tougher standards invariably require deployment of new technologies to equip owners with great tools to enhance the treatment barriers and safeguard water supplies. While this gadgetry is indeed needed, these technological tools and advances, if not implemented with “Hi-tech Hi-touch attunement” in mind, can impede us from achieving what we have set out to accomplish.

What is “Hi-tech Hi-touch”? The Hi-Tech Hi-Touch concept first gained notoriety in the early 1980’s via Author John Naisbitt’s book, MEGATRENDS. In this book, he described the need for any technological advancement introduced into society to be accompanied by an equal or greater effort to address the human needs of comfort (Hitouch) with the technology. Failure to do so could result in rejection of the technological advancement.

One of my first experiences with the Hi-tech Hi-touch concept at play was gained during a study conducted in the late 1980’s. For this assignment, I had the opportunity to work for a public sector client to investigate the operational history of ten water treatment plants located in remote northern communities. The purpose of the study was to determine why these plants were not realizing their performance potential; some were operating very poorly and others, not operating at all. The study included the examination of socio cultural issues, undertaken by a specialist in this area, in addition to our technical engineering assessment.

During one memorable community site visit, I learned of a new groundwater treatment plant that was only being used to wash pickup trucks – the water was not being consumed. When I asked the operator, “Why?“, he replied, “Have you tasted this stuff - do you think we are stupid?” He went on to explain that the groundwater tasted medicinal, and did not compare to the raw lake water that residents and their ancestors had been drinking for the previous 150 years. It was clear that the well intentioned solution of providing the residents with a new technologically advanced treatment process missed the “Hi-touch” mark needed to realize project success.

In this example, inadvertent disregard for the traditional values and the palatability of the end product, as defined by the consumer, was not taken into consideration. While implementation of a new groundwater plant (Hi-tech) was well intentioned and the project implementers had provided a water supply that met the regulatory standards of the day, they undoubtedly missed the mark when it came to Hi-touch attunement, and ended up providing a very expensive car wash for the community.

Thankfully, such disastrous outcomes (i.e. complete rejection of technology) are uncommon. However, subtle indicators of missing the Hi-touch mark are often at play when observing some operations staff during start-up and commissioning. On one end of the spectrum, we sometimes encounter the “withdrawing spectator”, who is overwhelmed by the inundation of new equipment with mystical inner workings. On the other end of the spectrum, one can encounter qualified acceptance of black box technology married with unrealistic expectations of infallibility and that the technology itself should be able to address all ills. Accompanying this perception is often an expectation that minimal attentiveness should be required. Both of the aforementioned scenarios speak to the need for Hi-touch attunement. In absence of addressing Hi-touch needs, a stand-back, hands-off approach to the technology can be the result within operations ranks. What is needed under such circumstances is action to demystify the technology through on-site mentoring and training, centered on capacity development through meaningful technical support and guidance.

Anyone implementing a new treatment plant wants the facility to realize its full performance potential. I have yet to see a plant realizing its performance potential without having a fully engaged operator at the helm. Achieving that engagement requires cradle-to grave involvement of operators through the project life cycle, including predesign and detailed design, and not just construction and commissioning. Meaningful engagement requires owners and decision-makers to include operators as integral members of the project team. It requires designers working collaboratively with operation personnel so that the strength of their operational experiences can be incorporated to shape the best fit solution. Lastly, it requires active participation by operators, once they are at the table, to provide constructive and timely feedback to the project team through-out all the project stages.

While investments in technological tools is mission critical to address the treatment challenges before us, what must not be lost amidst the sparkle of technological gadgetry that captivates our attention is a proportional need for the Hitouch element to be addressed. When we adopt new technologies we need mechanisms to help operators adapt to them. The degree to which we succeed in doing this, is the degree to which we can help operations realize the performance potential of the systems that get implemented.

About the author:

Garry Drachenberg, P.Eng., is our Corporate Water Planning and Technology Leader. Garry has more than 25 years’ experience in the water and wastewater industry, on projects across Canada. His experience includes project management, planning, design, construction, operations, and troubleshooting. He has authored and presented many papers on water supply and treatment, lectured on water treatment at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, and has taught the Alberta Water and Wastewater Operators certification courses.