The Internet of Things (IoT) is already making a significant impact in a variety of business areas, including industrial monitoring and production, supply chain tracking, and multiple retail processes.
Down the road, experts see the IoT becoming nothing less than an integral aspect of everyday life, with a huge role for IT to play.
Earlier this year, Gartner forecast that 8.4 billion connected "things" will be in use worldwide this year, up 31% from last year. These include door locks, industrial robots, traffic lights, smoke detectors, heating and cooling systems, smart cars, heart monitors, trains, wind turbines, and even toasters. The total number of connected devices will reach 20.4 billion by 2020, Gartner predicted. Meanwhile, total spending on IoT-related endpoints and services was estimated at almost $2 trillion in 2017, Gartner added.
The IoT has profound implications for businesses of all types and sizes, yet industrial IoT holds the greatest potential, said Matt Rossi, director of technology at Janeiro Digital, a Boston-based business consultancy. "While it may not have the popularity of many consumer based markets — smart home, wearables, etc. — there is massive potential in connecting manufacturing, agriculture, energy, robotics, and so on," he explained.
The most important part of becoming familiar with IoT is understanding how to capture and manage data to make better, informed decisions, said George Westerman, principal research scientist at MIT Sloan Executive Education. "Once businesses get control of the data through IoT integration, they can make it available for use," he noted.
Enterprises must also be prepared to meet IoT's sizeable resource demands. "The key issue created by IoT is one of scale," observed Paul Hill, a senior consultant at System Experts, an IT security and compliance consulting firm in Sudbury, Mass.
Individually, IoT devices don’t possess much computational power, but they will be legion. "The number of devices in some industries will be much greater than the total number of employees," Hill predicted. IoT has the potential to cripple inadequately built networks and data centers.
Defining IT’s role
IT's role in IoT project conception, design and deployment remains largely undefined; enterprises are experimenting with various approaches. Shawn Chandler, an IEEE senior member and director at Chicago-based technology consultancy Navigant, said that IT must become the enterprise IoT innovator, providing the fundamental architecture model and infrastructure that will allow new IoT applications to thrive. "If business groups provide their own solutions, it is much more difficult to integrate later," he noted.
IT can also help spark IoT discussions within the enterprise. "IT can drive the evaluation of the different platforms and devices available for fulfilling business unit needs," said Ram Palaniappan, senior director of data analytics and insights for TEKsystems, an IT staffing and services firm in Hanover, Md. "IT can help develop what the ROI of IoT applications should look like."
Highlighting IoT's benefits balanced against its security needs can help jumpstart the conversation. "While many companies might be scared off because of recent breaches, blacklisting every IoT technology in sight isn’t going to help," said Rob Clyde, co-chair of ISACA, a nonprofit, association that advocates for professionals involved in IT security, assurance, risk management and governance operations. "IT departments should help organizations figure out how they can take advantage of IoT technology with confidence and proper security," he explained.
While IT can promote IoT and encourage pilot projects, actual innovation should be left to the business owners, who are more apt to identify new applications and competitive threats, said Steve Perkins, managing director of the global technology industry practice at Chicago-based business services firm Grant Thornton.
"The IT department can help by establishing centers of excellence and focusing on areas of policy, security, best-practice identification/promotion and procurement," he explained. IT departments can also support pilots created by business units.
IT's main goal should be to create a strong partnership between technology and business. The partnership should work to define and apply specific IoT roles and responsibilities. "In simpler terms, IT should provide the technologies and support required, but if the units are able to do things on their own within their standards, that’s great too," MIT Sloan's Westerman said.
When it comes to training staff in IoT technologies and practices, IT leaders have multiple options available. "While there is already a lot of talent in the industry and young minds coming out of universities, I’ve been seeing a lot more organizations looking to train their people internally," Westerman said. "Sometimes, organizations will bring in a consultant while others will hire one to two experts to train others in the organization," he added.
Security and privacy challenges
Maintaining strong data privacy is a key factor in ensuring an IoT project’s success. "Understanding how to protect the data of individuals and the business should be a concern for every IT project, requiring specific security domain-related expertise," Chandler said. Data should also be classified, with protection levels based on each item's importance and sensitivity.
"Threats should be mitigated through specific planned measures, with actions taken to decrease vulnerabilities to the extent possible based on the critical nature of the data and the business process," Navigant's Chandler noted. Organizations should also ensure that their IoT devices can be updated automatically, allowing security vulnerabilities to be patched quickly.
It also helps to deploy and maintain well-defined security practices and policies. "In terms of security, the messier the integration, the worse you design them, the riskier they are from a security standpoint," Westerman said. "The more rational your platform is, the better the governance you put in to design it, the better you can manage security processes."
Just a Bit of Advice
Taking that First Step with IoT
A good way to get enterprises thinking about potential IoT applications is to start a business innovation working group.
"The team should be composed of a senior business sponsor and a mix of management and staff who have an interest," said Shawn Chandler of Navigant. "Have the group brainstorm possible applications with the requirements to explore."
MIT's George Westerman said that the biggest challenge IT departments face is helping enterprise executives understand that the IoT is not a technology problem. “Rather it’s how you change an organization and do better because of this technology," he added.