Exclusive: Emerson's new regional president on digitalisation and diversity

Vidya Ramnath, who recently became Emerson Automation’s president of the Middle East and Africa, reflects on the links between digitalisation and diversity

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Digitalisation is an industry trend. What about diversity?

Both of them, both the words you used, digitalisation and diversity are huge trends. But what I would really like to say is that these are both must-haves for our industry. They are not really buzzwords, they are things that have to be part of our integrated action as we go forward.

When I stepped into this role, I was amazed to see the amount of progress that has been happening right here in this region. When you talk about diversity, there has been conscious action from a national level, I’m talking about countries like the UAE and KSA, there are national diversity councils taking action on this, and I see that some of our big customers, like Saudi Aramco and ADNOC, they are doing some diversity programs that make it obvious that they are jumping in to take action.

We all know we’re a little bit behind, especially the oil and gas industry. When you stack up all the industries and you look for diversity statistics, you’ll find that oil and gas is woefully behind the rest, others, like the services industries, are a little ahead in terms of diversity, specifically gender diversity. You’ll see that oil and gas is a little further away, and that needs to improve.

The reason that people feel so strongly that it needs to improve is the actual results that come out with a more diverse workforce. The kind of innovation that you could do, and the kind of results you could get from a more engaged workforce, through diversity, has such an appeal to our customers and to us as an automation solutions provider.

We hear a lot about how digitalisation can help fill the talent gap. Does it also link to the gender gap in the oil and gas sector?

I think it works both ways. Diversity benefits digitalisation and the other way around. We know that we are in a very different environment now than before, and ever since the oil price crash the oil and gas industry has been disrupted in so many ways. We do talk about the immense amount of value that digitalisation technology can provide to this industry, whether it is in the large capital investment mode, where it could provide huge benefits, like faster uptake of projects, completing projects on time and on budget. Digitalisation is clearly key to that. In some of our maturing facilities, what we call brownfields, it offers a wealth of options, whether it is in safety, which is paramount in this industry, production optimisation, reliability...

There are a lot of ways that digitalisation can provide huge benefits. There’s an aging workforce in the industry. Skillsets are fast disappearing. So, you have to go out and look at the broader set available, and you can’t ignore diversity at this point. So I think it is important to get our female population out there, digitally fluent, and that is going to help us bring more and more engage minds into solving these disruptive problems that are happening in our midst right now.

You’re taking on a leadership position in what is generally seen as a male-dominated field. What are the benefits having a more diverse group of people in leadership positions?

I never felt there was the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’. We are encouraging the population within our company and, of course, we are trying to influence beyond Emerson, to have the confidence. Sometimes it is about having the confidence to go outside of your comfort zone, for us women, and saying “You know what? I’ve got this. I can do this.” And I felt that was very possible at Emerson.

We are very actively working to drive unconscious bias out of our office. We train extensively about how to remove these barriers that could be perceived by minorities and women in the organisation. I personally sponsor the Women in STEM programme, which I think is extremely important because these days you see that a lot of industries have that flavour, and we’re trying our best to bring people back into true blue engineering and technology and I think Women in STEM plays a very important role in that. What is the benefit? I think when we look at multiple teams, we try to seed diversity in those teams. Not just gender, but people from all walks of life. It brings a uniqueness in terms of diverse opinions, different voices. When you have different voices, you have innovation and a multitude of unique thoughts that you can put into action.

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