The Internet of Things: Seeing the big picture

The Internet of Things (IoT) is getting a lot of buzz in the business world. It’s an important concept — and one that has the potential to transform how your business does business. What is the IoT? In a nutshell, the idea that everyday objects –big objects such bulldozers and traffic signals, and small objects, such as your coffee maker, headphones, and running shoes — have sophisticated sensors that are able to collect data and technology to share that data.

Experts predict that by 2020 there could be anywhere from 30 billion to 1 trillion connected devices. The technological innovations associated with the IoT represent extraordinary changes in our lives. The IoT will usher in a wave of automation in nearly every field of business. Everything will be smarter. Smart phones, smart home, smart cars, smart grids, smart cites, smart toothbrushes.

Internet of Things will allow us to do many new and wonderful things, but it will also create a complex ecosystems of devices, people, processes, and systems. Engineers have been working for years on the device connections of this ecosystem, but to really make the system work, businesses now need to focus on synthesizing the data, connecting the people and process part of the ecosystem.

These connections will be difficult to create — especially since the technology is constantly changing and businesses and brands will have little control over how consumers will use their products and services. Seeing beyond the immediate impact of connectivity and understanding the complexity of large-scale collaboration and data collection is a huge business challenge and opportunity.

Businesses need to begin imagining their Internet of Things ecosystems and one of the best ways to do this to draw it. Whether you use simple stick figures or invest in professional visual model, drawing how your products, services, company, and industry will work, you can then begin to see how the pieces fit together and connect the dots

So, what are you likely to see?

First, a visual model can help you to rethink your business model. Big Data and IoT is creating opportunities for new revenue streams, different ways to engage consumers, and inspire customer loyalty. Visual models act as paper-prototypes and low cost alternatives to pilots. Before you’re ready for market, drawing out (and thinking through) all of the pieces can ensure a successful launch with no gaps. Additionally, creating a visual model of your IoT business can help you to have empathy not just for your consumers but also for the individuals involved in every aspect of the IoT ecosystem, and especially for the workers who will be responsible for delivering the service. For example, if customer support personnel do not have a deep understanding of the product ecosystem — who uses it, how do they use it, and for what purposes — the IoT quickly loses value.

Second, understanding the entire ecosystem helps to clarify the interdependence of people, data, systems, and process. The IoT is not just a machine-to-machine dialogue. For decades businesses have been good at selling things. The IoT challenges businesses to sell and explain both things and systems. Five years ago Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of GE said that someday the data generated from their jet engines could be as valuable as the machinery itself. Recently GE announced it’s transformation into the world’s largest digital industrial company and it’s planned move to be headquartered in Boston, likely to take advantage of the rich technology ecosystem offered by the city.

Third, developing a detailed visual model of the Internet of Things ecosystem helps to create a shared understanding within your company. Connecting all these devices and managing the data they generate on a daily basis is a huge shift for companies. It’s hard enough to frame and communicate the strategy to a workforce that stretches from the shop floor to the corner office and from Chicago to Shanghai before it ever hits the street. Consider this a cultural mind shift. This mind shift in turn helps to configure better service offerings, build better bridges between software, people, systems, training, etc., and help to design more meaningful consumer experiences that will drive smarter decision making.

Fifty billion smart devices will not make us smarter. But designing a corporate culture that enables a company to visually see its future, shift it’s mindset, frame meaningful service offerings, fail fast and learn along the way, and clearly communicate the value all this data generates will truly help us to collaborate and make smarter decisions.

Steve Frank in a Principal Shareholder and the Director of Business Development at ThoughtForm. He leads ThoughtForm in applying design as a business method to visualize strategies and drive innovation

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