Embracing Emerging Disciplines
How do you develop education on a topic when an accepted body of knowledge doesn’t exist?
In the early 2000s, the emerging topic in supply chain management was radio frequency identification (RFID). Most of the available information dealt with experimental research, engineering of chips, and speculation as to what this technology might be able to do. Then word came out that the Department of Defense was making a commitment to using RFID, followed by the news that Wal-Mart was requiring its top 100 suppliers to tag their pallets and shipments of goods with RFID chips. Suddenly it seemed that things shifted into high gear and there were questions galore about the many unknowns. Would RFID work in certain conditions? What sort of range did chips and sensors have? Were passive or active tags the way to go? There was angst about the cost of chips—but the die had been cast. If these bellwether organizations were embracing the technology, this was the future and everyone else would have to adapt. People wanted education, but there wasn’t enough established and accepted knowledge to be able to put together a session, much less a course. All we could do was to share what we were learning about the technology.
Fast forward to today, and you hardly hear about RFID because it’s part of our everyday world. The early concerns about cost and utility dissipated when the price of tags and equipment dropped, the reliability improved, and the acceptance of standards brought quality and consistency.
Is there an “RFID” in the practice of industrial hygiene today? Certainly there are areas where we have an idea of what the future might look like, but the body of knowledge isn’t yet fully formed. One example reminiscent of RFID’s debut is big data. We can grasp the concept—the availability of huge data sets—and once again, Wal-Mart and other major retailers are leading the way, as is the government (as evidenced by recent revelations of widespread intelligence gathering). Are we at a point where we can deliver education on established and accepted practices? Probably not yet, but we’re getting closer.
As NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard has stated, the implication of the growth of data is that the industrial hygienists of the future will need to have analytics in their skill set as a necessary complement to their knowledge of OEHS. Until the field becomes more defined, though, the approach to education about big data in the early going is to communicate what is known so far through articles, blog posts, research papers, and information sessions. These outlets start to define the territory. As knowledge and practices become more solidified, an accepted body of knowledge begins to take shape. Then, as the field of practice becomes established and the level of content expands, the opportunities for education begin to appear.
It’s fun to watch a new discipline come into being and to grapple with defining it in the early stages, accumulating the knowledge as it develops, and finally building enough of an understanding to be able to educate others. What glimpses of the future do you see coming over the horizon?