Getting into the IoT game? Your business needs a well-defined use case first

IoT has been billed as "the next big thing" for several years; however, when executed poorly, IoT efforts can be distracting boondoggles.

Image: iStock/Chesky_W

The Internet of Things (IoT) has legitimately been billed as a world-changing technology. From the early days of the internet and widespread connectivity, technologists and product managers have been talking about applications for ubiquitous connected devices, ranging from mundane home appliances to industrial machinery and even city infrastructure. It's easy to let your imagination run wild as you envision a technological "butterfly effect," where a connected automobile moving across a city in a distant country could trigger a cascading series of events among other connected devices that ultimately result in my IoT coffee maker brewing up a latte.

In possibility lies danger

This is all exceedingly interesting, and perhaps more "real" than recently possible due to near-ubiquitous, cheap wireless connectivity, and sensors and computing devices that are small, inexpensive, and powerful enough to perform nearly any computing function required to enable even advanced use cases. The possibilities are so mind-boggling, many companies are attempting to "future proof" their products and assets by focusing on embedding connectivity and computing functions now, and worrying about the actual use cases down the line.

Conceptually this is a great strategy that some companies have even used successfully: drop connectivity hardware into existing products, and then worry about the rest later. However, in all but the simplest products, once connectivity is added, it's easy to start discussing what other data should be captured—whether a rudimentary communications technology like Bluetooth is sufficient versus more complex cellular technology, and ultimately once you have communications, what data you should start communicating and capturing now for that future use case. Essentially, it's easy to get sucked into building all the complex technical pieces, without having any idea what the IoT-driven product or service looks like.

You'll probably have as much luck hitting the lucky throw of the dice at the casino as you will in guessing all the technical capabilities that will enable a compelling IoT use case before it's defined, resulting in product changes that could have been avoided.

SEE: IoT and liability: Who pays when things go wrong?

Technology comes second

Rather than attempting to "pre-design" IoT enablement technologies, work with your R&D staff and product managers to explore the Art of the Possible when it comes to connected products, and ideally focus on products that are already in the field that can be leveraged to introduce new data-driven service offerings. The Nest thermostat, one of the early winners in consumer IoT devices, is ultimately envisioned as a secondary product to reselling thermostat use and energy data to power companies, and you likely have data about your products or services that could fill a similar niche.

While exploring the possibilities, note the themes that emerge. Perhaps there are several opportunities in correlating data from your products and selling those data to other industries like Nest, or perhaps product data lend themselves to preemptive service and maintenance offerings that can keep your customers up and running while reducing your warranty costs. Explore what enabling capabilities, ranging from analytics technology to sales force training, these new offerings will require, and plan for building these capabilities even before the products that will leverage them are ready.

Following this path, you won't get to the IoT inside your products until you have a series of well-defined use cases, and the technologies to support those use cases as well as the "soft" organizational capabilities will be deployed or in the process of being deployed. This is a much better outcome than having a bunch of connected "stuff" in the field that ultimately doesn't completely support the product or service offering that's developed, or is a technically-correct "island" that lacks the infrastructure or organizational resources to actually utilize the connected capabilities for anything meaningful.

SEE: Video: The three ingredients to a successful IoT deployment in the enterprise

The IoT out

You may even discover during these discussions that the connected device aspect of IoT is the easy part, and that your organization has significant work to do developing the required supporting technologies or even fairly simple organizational capabilities. Connected capabilities will do little in the marketplace if your company is not equipped to market or sell them, for example. While this may mean the fun of radios, data lakes, and apps are a few years in your future, better to know now and develop an integrated roadmap toward that future than to slap a radio in your next device that's never actually used.

Also see:
Chronicled releases open registry for IoT built on blockchain
Big data and IoT matter to 56% of organizations (Tech Pro Research)
67% of manufacturers investing in big data and industrial IoT, says new report
IoT helping Tassie oyster farmers avoid unnecessary closures

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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