Building things The Nerdery

4 Steps to Building “Things” That Matter

In a connected world, how do you know what has value and how to find people of value?

The Internet of Things is Upon Us

Looking forward from a few decades ago, it would be hard to imagine the connected world we live in today. While the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT) has been around for years, recent advances in mobile, wireless, Bluetooth, and cellular technology have evolved our idea and applications of connectedness at a dizzying pace. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)¹, the number of connected devices in the world will exceed 50 billion by the year 2020. That means that in three years there will be more than seven connected devices per every person on the face of the planet.

As we continue our relentless march toward a globally-connected ecosystem, business leaders who want their organizations to survive must keep pace with technology. Though the depth and breadth of the connected ecosystem is daunting, and the path forward won’t be easy, there is one core tenet that can help guide businesses in the right direction: Don’t make something just to make something. Make something that matters.

How do you figure out how to do that? One small step at a time, starting with the four key principles outlined below:

1. Confront the connectedness craze. History provides fascinating demonstrations of humanity’s love for a good craze. A concept forms, critical density forms around that concept, then massive popular momentum builds in the market. Way back in 1841, Scottish journalist Charles Mackay described this phenomena as “extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.” But you only have to look as far back to the dot-com bubble of the 1990s for a salient example. And IoT and connectedness are currently snared in the grips of this phenomenon.

During any craze, it’s critical to look beyond the fervor and understand which of the movement’s underlying drivers has actual value. The volume of noise, speculation, and misinformation currently being generated by IoT can obscure this value, creating widespread confusion and uncertainty. As a result, consumers are now being confronted with mind-boggling devices like the Wi-Fi-enabled wine bottle and the Bluetooth-enabled fork. As the landscape becomes more and more cluttered with novelty “things,” the true value of connectedness is increasingly buried.

For business leaders facing a rapidly changing competitive landscape, this obfuscation is particularly challenging. When applied correctly, connectedness can be leveraged to improve customer insight and experience, and to achieve better operational intelligence. When pursued without a clear and compelling strategy, connectedness can potentially lead to a significant loss of time, money, and reputation.

The industry-specific nature of IoT presents another unique challenge for businesses trying to enter the connected playing field. While the same general rules apply across fields for something as ubiquitous as a website, connected solutions must be highly tailored to and within industries. There is no single solution, tool, device, or approach that can be universally applied. Agricultural IoT applications will not effectively cross over to retail or medical device practices, and vice-versa. This can make the initial jump into the connected space even more difficult for business leaders.

Ultimately—if you boil it down—connectedness is about creating access, information, and tools that provide better insight into customers, shape people’s experiences, and influence behaviors. It’s also about speed, flexibility, extensibility, and the ability to continuously update products. Start by focusing on removing non-valuable processes and activities from business practices and consumer experiences.

2. Solve a problem, don’t implement a solution. Look to history or you’re doomed to repeat it. We don’t need to look too far into the past to find examples of why business leaders are hesitant to aggressively move into the connected space. This might sound familiar if you were involved in pretty much any aspect of business and technology between 2010 and 2015, when the tired refrain “we need an app” became maddeningly ubiquitous.  

As the mobile space erupted, so did the race to the app marketplaces for businesses—but it wasn’t always a race to the top. Interestingly enough, the primary driver for the vast majority of businesses to build their own custom mobile applications was that “everyone else had one.” But just because you can build it does not mean that you should. This is where keeping up falls flat. Millions of dollars have been spent building applications that rarely returned the investment and—in many cases—alienated consumers and damaged the company’s brand. It’s important to take what we learned from the mobile app craze and apply it to the connected space.

When you’re investigating and researching connected solutions, focus on the problems you want to solve. Don’t get caught up in a platform or technology. In most businesses, problems big and small abound. Focus on the problems that can shape and improve the experiences of your employees and customers. IoT technology should serve a purpose and be a means to an end, not the end itself. Leverage technology to achieve your goals, but don’t let the technology distract or consume you. Don’t fall into the trap of building the perfect product. Start small and fast.

At The Nerdery, we recently implemented an IoT tracking system for a major conference organizer that was aimed at collecting insight into attendee demographics, traffic flow, event impact and attendance. Utilizing lightweight, disposable UHF passive RFID tags placed in attendee name badges (permission was obtained), an off-the-shelf reader and controllers with some custom firmware, we were able to provide the conference organizer with a real-time visualization of participation and attendee interactions. Additionally, the analytics we provided enabled the organizer to not only demonstrate the successful impact of their event, but also provide sponsors with useful marketing data. The total cost of the implementation was minimal, but the impact was significant.

As IoT hardware becomes more prolific, cheaper to buy and easier to integrate, small-scale initiatives like the conference tracker system will become less daunting to attempt and experimentation will flourish. Additionally, taking on these small-scale efforts will help you gain valuable new perspective and begin to develop your most critical asset: your talent.

3. Look inside your own walls for passionate people. The majority of business leaders recognize that connectedness will significantly impact their business in the coming years, but they all face a common challenge: Where do you find the smart, talented people to lead and execute your IoT efforts? The talent market is extremely competitive and will only grow more so in the IoT technology stacks—specifically, those in hardware tech (such as device-to-device protocols like Bluetooth LE) and device-to-internet connectivity via Wi-Fi and cellular, as well as software tech like AWS and Azure and data/service layer tech like Spring and Hadoop.

The majority of businesses won’t have massive capital budgets to invest in large-scale training or hiring significant numbers of talented people. But they do have options. At its heart, IoT started with passionate people who wanted to experiment and tinker with technology. Find those people within your walls—the ones that are familiar with your business and its challenges — then arm them with the ability to experiment. Start them out on small initiatives.

The very first IoT project The Nerdery experimented with was an in-house initiative to IoT-enable our kitchen beer kegs. A few passionate nerds built out a connected system of flow meters, a simple controller with custom firmware and display logic in order to track our consumption of beer and help predict when we would need to order additional kegs. Those passionate problem-solvers have become some of the founding members of our IoT practice.

Get your team’s creative juices flowing by exposing them to as much of the connected world as possible. Supplement your teams with outside perspectives and examples of connected initiatives in the IoT landscape. Learning about existing solutions and applications in the marketplace will familiarize your teams with a broad set of connected solutions and help build their understanding of how to apply connected technology to your business. Exposing yourself and your team to the limitless possibilities will generate excitement, helping to fuel the creativity that kickstarts true innovation.

4. Forget what you know. Technological advancements are disruptive. Whether it’s the printing press or Bluetooth LE, technology creates disruption in the competitive landscape of the business world. One of the fundamental concepts that I’ve come to grips with over the past few years is that the time-tested product and delivery methodologies and approaches that we were raised on don’t fit the connected world. Traditional manufacturing and outdated information technology approaches, or “boiling the ocean” approaches to products, will not survive in the highly-competitive and ever-evolving connected space.

No longer can we construct heavily-detailed plans, execute a huge waterfall development cycle, launch a product and call it done. Connected solutions and initiatives must be flexible and fast. The old proverb of “perfect is the enemy of good” has never been more true than in the connected space. It’s no longer just big business beating small companies—it’s fast beating slow.

Consider this fact: Amazon releases an update to its production services every 11.6 sec. That’s more than 7,000 updates per day. It took just six days for Elon Musk’s Tesla to update its entire fleet of vehicles to address an idle charging behavior that was resulting in backups at charging stations. The speed and flexibility that allows Amazon and Tesla to respond in near real time instead of months, quarters, or years is the key to their success. As you look at how to implement connected solutions in your own business, always aim for fast and flexible.

The Journey and the Destination

The technological tsunami of connectedness is unavoidable, and the sheer magnitude of its implications in the business world is staggering. Avoid being caught up in the white noise and faddish aspects of IoT and focus on its underlying value. Prioritize initiatives and solutions that have real impact on your business. Start with experiments and small initiatives. Build your confidence and understanding of how to successfully apply connected solutions to your business by leveraging the passionate people you already have and growing their skills. Supplement that talent through exposure and adding new perspectives.

Creating, growing, evolving and iterating your IoT practice is critical to the survival of your business. It won’t be easy, but if you do it right, you will be able to make something that matters.  

Learn more about The Nerdery’s thought leadership efforts in IIoT in a recent report with the Business Performance Innovation (BPI) Network.

Reference

1. Federal Trade Commission. (2015). "Internet of Things: Privacy and Security in a Connected World."

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