It’s easy to focus on the power and might of big iron and big data when thinking about the Industrial Internet, but the people who work on industrial assets are equally critical to delivering results. Just as brilliant machines can deliver the right information to the right people at the right time, the Industrial Internet is now making human expertise available whenever and wherever it is needed.

In GE’s Connected Experience Labs, we’ve been working on collaboration tools that connect industrial workers to the right information and resources in real time. When a technician is examining equipment issues at a customer site, such as a power plant, he or she needs to access relevant information at a moment’s notice from both documentation and experts who can provide technical advice. Hence, we worked with our Power Generation Services (PGS) business to design a mobile application, called Ask an Expert, which allows field engineers to conduct multi-party, real-time collaboration with colleagues and experts.

Ask an Expert allows users to create collaboration sessions where they can share in-situ video and photos about problems, pull up relevant documents and photos, and collaboratively annotate these documents in real time. In designing this app, we followed a user-centered design process that included user research at power plants and rail yards to understand the challenges and needs of industrial workers. A paper describing our research will be presented at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) to be held in Kauai in January 2015.

It’s not enough to just be able to ask an expert; finding the right expert to ask is also crucial. This can be especially challenging within large, globally dispersed organizations, but it can be hard for organizations of any size to maintain up-to-date directories of employees’ expertise or to motivate employees to maintain their own internal profiles. In response, we developed another tool, Find an Expert, that automatically infers expertise from employee-generated documents. Technicians enter a few keywords into the tool to describe their problem and are presented with a list of relevant experts based on logs of previous case resolutions.

Then the technician needs to pick an expert from the list. In designing the user interface for Find an Expert, we explored how we represented recommended experts to users in order to help users select an expert to contact. Through interviews with product engineering experts and technicians, we evaluated different visualization techniques and user interface designs to see which would best support technicians in selecting the right expert. We found that visually representing the topics of expertise for an individual, along with information about their availability and experience, worked best.

Tools like Ask an Expert and Find an Expert show that data delivered in a user-friendly way can augment the social intelligence of an organization and enable efficient problem solving. Recording problem solving trajectories and artifacts so that they can be mined in the future can also make it easier to measure the efficiency of collaboration processes and teams and replicate those for future success. 

About the author

Sharoda Paul

GE Software