The Internet of Things: How to make it a reality

With great potential comes great responsibility: Here's how companies need to think about the Internet of Things to generate the greatest benefits.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

The Internet of Things (IoT) may be one of the most hyped technology trends around right now but to make it a reality organisations need to establish best practice in a long-term strategy.

How will the IoT affect businesses and how can CIOs help their organisations make the most of the trend? Five IT leaders give their views.

1. Lead the debate about the value and ethics of information

Ian Cohen, group CIO at insurance firm JLT, says the IoT - unlike other hyped trends, such as big data - is genuinely game-changing. Unlike previous technologies, the IoT allows information to arrive in real time directly from the source. Cohen says the potential implications are enormous, from cars that contact manufacturers for support services to pacemakers that inform your cardiologist of worrying signs before a heart attack takes place.

But great potential also brings great responsibility. "As a CIO, just because I can collect all this real-time information, should I? What are my obligations when I know more about you than you know yourself? And what are the protocols to intervene or act on information I have acquired before or during a situation?" asks Cohen.

"The role of the CIO surely can't just be to run the systems or collect and present the data. It can't just be to come up with new visualisations, although that will help the business see the wood from the trees. Surely there's an obligation to lead and participate in the debate around the nature of data and its value, as well as the ethicacy of its use. Well, at least I hope there is."

2. Create a story that helps boost customer experiences

Julian Self - an experienced CIO, who has worked at a number of finance firms - says it is vital IT leaders understand how the data collected by connected things helps to tell a story, whether that is a narrative about grocery spending, consumption habits, or detailed travel patterns.

Self says thinking about how the business can monetise this newly found insight will set successful executives apart. "The CIO needs to provide intelligence and detail about the story, and a platform that allows the business to then create new products and services that enhance customer experiences," he says.

However, Self says the CIO cannot do this work in isolation. IT leaders must work in partnership with the rest of the business to achieve their aims; they need to talk the same language as their peers and in context.

Self says the maximum economic added value can only be gained from the IoT if the story is interpreted correctly. "This interpretation is not a one-off exercise," he says. "It needs to be an adaptive continual process, as the real world is not a static, deterministic environment. And the story doesn't stop there.

"Once you've just got your arms around your own data, how are you going to collaborate with all the other companies that have more information?"

3. Develop an entrepreneurial environment

Jim Anning is head of data and analytics at British Gas Connected Homes, a specialist unit that has been set up to investigate the use of smart technology. He says the group has been established with a startup-like culture that encourages innovation and has given the firm a strong foothold in the fast-growing IoT market.

"If we'd had this conversation two years ago, you wouldn't have imagined it would be possible that British Gas would become one of the most important organisations associated to the development of the IoT," he says.

The success of the British Gas approach, says Anning, is due to a combination of factors, but the backing of the wider business has been crucial. "We've been given the freedom to innovate," he says. "British Gas took a far-sighted approach to setting up its Connected Homes initiative."

Current projects include helping customers make the most of the active heating technology Hive. Another area of development covers smart meter technology and attempts to give consumers more granular detail about their energy use.

Anning advises other executives thinking of getting involved in IoT to focus on creating a supportive environment. "As long as you have the buy-in from the parent organisation, you can create an entrepreneurial environment, recruit the right people, and develop solutions in short, iterative development cycles," he says.

4. Create useful knowledge rather than big data

Mike Williams is software and IT director at water management specialist i2O, a firm that creates innovative solutions to the challenge of leakage in global water distribution systems.

The company is a heavy user of Apache Cassandra's open source database technology and Williams expects i2O will start using intelligent sensors across the water network to collect information within the next 12 months.

"IoT will allow us to analyse data from many more information channels in regards to fault detection," he says. "Water companies can suffer huge financial implications as a result of assets going bad. The IoT could help utility companies cut their expenditure through a targeted maintenance programme."

Williams says business context is crucial when it comes to the IoT. "If you're the CIO of a company with consumer customers, you'll bump into the issues far more quickly than a business-to-business enterprise. But these organisations need to look at how consumer-focused companies are taking advantage of the IoT and how they might use the approach in their own business," he says, before suggesting some best practice data tips.

"Less can be more," he says. "Don't create an unwieldy data repository, and look to use less - but more intelligent - sensors. The IoT should be all about collecting the right information and how you can use that data to create useful knowledge."

5. Focus on business outcomes and forget the hype

National Trust CIO Sarah Flannigan is a former marketing director who takes a practical and business-based approach to digital IT. While the IoT might be the talk of enterprise boardrooms, Flannigan says the introduction of any technology must be closely related to the Trust's wider aims. "We pride ourselves in not being seduced by the latest hyped technology," she says. "In terms of IT, we need to do what we can as well as we can - and any technology we use has to be proven to add business value."

When it comes to digital technology, Flannigan's key priority is wireless networking and finding ways to ensure the Trust's staff, members, and visitors can connect at some of the UK's most remote locations. "Finding clever ways to overcome connectivity issues is a constant challenge," she says.

"Our aim is to make the online visitor experience as rich as it is offline, so we're looking at areas like mobility, applications, and personalisation. We'll focus our resources and attention on whatever technology delivers the best possible return for the Trust."

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