While there’s general agreement that the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) potentially represents trillions of dollars in economic gains, the biggest inhibitor of its growth could be issues with finding and managing the right personnel.
The challenges associated with building, deploying and managing a successful IoT project has as much to do with changing the culture of an organization as it does with mastering the technology. IoT as a concept is not all that new; for decades now, organizations have employed operations teams (OT) to manage machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. The main difference now is that internal IT organizations aggregate machine data in a central location, where it can be analyzed to discover actionable intelligence.
The end result is a convergence of traditional IT staffs and operations teams. “The OT and IT teams are aware they now have to work together,” said Michael Moran, an industry analyst with Gartner. “IoT is essentially the forcing function. But we’re at the beginning of that journey.”
Other analysts are less sanguine about the prospects of successfully accomplishing that collaboration. “I don’t think OT people even recognize the term IoT,” said Josh Greenbaum, principal for Enterprise Applications Consulting. “This is going to be like the Hatfields and McCoys.”
Despite those issues, IoT initiatives are proceeding. Take the case of EDF Renewable Energy, which produces wind turbines and solar energy farms. “We had no structured way to analyze data coming in from the field alongside finance and geospatial data,” said CIO Matthias Beir. “We launched an IT initiative about a year and a half ago to create that platform.” As a result, the company is in the process of merging IT and OT staffs.
According to Jana Kanyadan, CIO for Mohawk Industries, a manufacturer of carpets and tiles, the combination of analytics and sensors saves the firm anywhere from six to seven million dollars a year. Despite those savings, the IoT initiative was initially greeted with skepticism. “At first our CEO said this was one of the worst ideas he ever heard,” Kanyadan said. “He now tells everybody this was the best IT idea ever.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Florida Crystals Corp. a processed-sugar provider that is trying to increase collaboration between its IT and OT staffs. “The business units have been investing in technologies for years,” said CIO Don Whittington. “We’re trying to bring all the data together to look for correlations.”
Tech-savvy business leaders are willing to adequately budget IoT projects. Case in point is Kimberly-Clark, a manufacturer of paper products that makes use of sensors and the IBM Watson platform to reduce the time and labor associated with maintaining public restrooms.
“We want to help our customers make more efficient use of their staffs,” said Bryan Semkuley, vice president of global innovation at Kimberly-Clark Professional. “We can also reduce wasted paper by as much as 20 percent.” The ultimate goal, he added, is to increase customer retention.
Regardless of the approach, there’s a consensus that these IoT projects are creating even more demand for data scientists and developers who are already in short supply. “The challenge is that we’re now competing for the same kinds of people as Google and Facebook,” Florida Crystal’s Whittington said.
Although IT services firms such as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) can offer salaries and benefits that attract tech pros with the right mix of skills, the people they hire need to have more than just technical knowledge.
“We’re definitely looking for people with vertical industry expertise,” said Akhilesh Tiwari, global head of the SAP practice for TCS. “Those people have to be able to see how digital technologies can take us beyond the limits of physical world.” In the end, the only limit to success in the IoT arena may have more to do with imagination than any set of technical skills.