Smartwatches, smart business: Five ways to make wearables work for you

Smartwatches and wearables are flashy, but what can businesses do to take advantage of this new technology?
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
"Like all new technology, it's all about getting the timing right and thinking about how can you can create a competitive advantage." - Yodel CIO Adam Gerrard
Image: ZDNet/CNET
The Apple Watch is the latest addition to the list of smartwatches and other wearable devices that have gone on sale recently: analyst Gartner expects to see 70 million smartwatches and fitness bands sold this year as consumer interest increases.

But what about the business angle for smartwatches and other wearables? How can CIOs create a strategy that helps their organisations make the most of these new devices, and what are the pitfalls?

1. Investigate the potential of wearables in an innovation lab

Yodel CIO Adam Gerrard is convinced by the potential power of connected devices. "Wearables will be massive," he says. "We're starting to see the emergence of devices that make good business sense."

He gives an example of how a delivery firm might be able to send real-time alerts to its customers. "From a logistics perspective, it would be great to give people detailed information to their smart watch of when a package will be delivered," he says. "Those kinds of strong use cases will lead to more businesses, like Yodel, becoming involved in wearables and the IoT."

Gerrard, however, recognises that businesses will have to think carefully about when to start developing services for wearable devices. The firm has created an IT innovation lab, where a small team scans the technology market and searches for potentially valuable engagements.

"Like all new technology, it's all about getting the timing right and thinking about how can you can create a competitive advantage," he says. "It's not on our schedule for this year, but wearable is a technology you have to investigate. It is another technology that we can feed through our innovation lab and think about its potential."

2. Focus on ease-of-use to generate a competitive advantage

Jaeger CIO Cathy McCabe says wearable technology is still at a very early stage of development. Some brands, such as those associated to health and fitness, have become more involved at an earlier juncture. Apple Watch, says McCabe, offers exciting opportunities for all firms.

"Apple Pay could really change the way goods and services are purchased," she says. "But the technology needs to be seamless to allow people to use their mobile devices for payment and to not have to rely on their credit cards."

McCabe says a large proportion of wearable technology is currently focused on monitoring, such as tracking and tracing how many steps an individual makes during a day. She believes competitive advantages could be generated in the area of push notifications, where individuals are automatically alerted to new information, such as messages and offers.

"It's a fascinating area," says McCabe. "You can really start to see the potential when you think about how many devices you own, how many apps you use and the potential for connectivity between those devices and apps. But it all comes down to a simple premise: the easier a technology is to use, the more valuable it will be."

3. Surround yourself with experts who know the power of data

Working Links CIO Omid Shiraji is convinced by the power of a new range of connected devices. "Wearables are disruptive," he says, suggesting the Apple Watch is the starting point for a larger shift that could lead to smartphones becoming irrelevant within a decade.

For now, what will be interesting, says Shiraji, is how organisations develop services for wearable devices. "It's all about working out how to make the most of the changing form factor," he says. "Early adopters will enjoy using the technology but we're unlikely to see the kinds of services that will provide key benefits to consumers for quite a while."

Shiraji says a new wave of internet-connected devices will create new pressure for IT leaders. He encourages his peers to carefully consider how they will cope with a new age of connectivity.

"We're talking about ferocious amounts of data," says Shiraji, who says IT leaders will need help. "As a CIO, it means that - once again - you will need to think about what the business wants to achieve and how it can reach this destination through the use of information."

4. Build a business case that considers privacy concerns

Jon Cooke, a member of cross-industry body the Data Innovation Working Group, says the move towards IoT, wearables and automation creates challenges for CIOs around business development and customer experience. "It's all about developing new ways of interacting with customers," he says.

Cooke, who is also head of the data science practice at GFT, says he spoke with the chief executive of a casino firm who is exploring how wearable technology might help to measure the heart rates of its clients when they gamble. Cooke says executives at a bank heard about the developments at the casino firm and are keen to know how such information can help inform decision-making processes.

"Those sort of developments obviously raise privacy issues and there are a whole host of areas that need to be considered," he says. "But the move towards wearable devices will continue to gain traction. And if you're a CIO, getting buy-in for your project is all about creating a solid business case."

5. Remember that wearables will not be right for everyone

Former Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks is unconvinced about the potential game-changing power of the Apple Watch. "It offers many of the functions of your iPhone, but less in total. There is some way to go until its strategic value is recognised and established," he says.

Any new technology - whether wearable or not - must offer something different. And when it comes to the workplace, Marks says form function is still crucial, especially for many producitivity-related tasks in a business context.

He says changes in the way many employees use technology will not be related to the success of Apple and are actually more reliant on Microsoft or Google creating a truly great office experience on a tablet device.

"An iPhone allows you to benefit from the app experience," he says. "But for the majority of work tasks, many business people will still need a laptop. If I'm using a tablet, I'll often need to use a keyboard. And if that's the case, I might as well use a laptop."

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