How Embedded Tech Can Change IT's Role

Consider some 75 examples of companies embedding technologies in products, from shoes to showers, in new ways. Embedded tech is finally allowing enterprise IT to generate revenue and growth.

Many CIOs cringe when they hear the term "consumerization." It's bad enough to have to deal with rogue business units and their non-standard applications. Now snot-faced new recruits ask why Facebook isn't the corporate directory, colleagues snipe about how the home HD TV picture quality is better than the office videoconferencing, and there's endless clamoring for a "bring your own device" policy.

Flip that coin over and celebrate. The same employee who's a pain-in-the-rear user is also your company's new consumer, looking for more tech in everything from cars to a hotel stay. And that fact creates incredible new opportunity for IT teams to be more valuable to their companies.

When I started research for my new book, The New Technology Elite, I went in with the assumption that 8 to 10 industries--including autos and medical devices--plus a few outlier companies like Nike with sensors in shoes were leading the way embedding technology in their products and services aimed at a tech savvy consumer. In the end, the book catalogs "smart" products and services in over 75 industries.

Some of the examples in the book:

-- A smart shirt from Under Armour with a removable sensor pack with a triaxial accelerometer, a processor, and two gigabytes of storage to measure athlete performance.

-- The smart version of bifocal or progressive eyeglasses from PixelOptics which alters the focal power of the lens when you tilt your head or tap the frame.

-- The smart hotel room at The Plaza in New York. The iPad in each room allows you to order room service, make restaurant reservations, book wake-up calls, print boarding passes, and control the room's lighting and air conditioning.

-- The smart restaurant--Do (as in Dough) in Atlanta. Not only are paper menus replaced by iPads, the tablets can also be used to tell the valet to pull up your car. The bathrooms boast sinks with iPad "mirrors" positioned on the walls.

-- Moen is making the shower smarter. The IOdigital wall-mounted control panel, with a handheld remote, lets you set and maintain water temperatures and bath levels.

-- Rain Bird's ESP-SMT irrigation controller makes lawn maintenance smarter. It utilizes historical and real-time weather data (you input data like your zip code, allowed watering days, and the plant/soil type for each zone) to determine optimum watering needs of the landscape based on the on-site current weather conditions.

-- USAA Bank pioneered mobile deposits using the iPhone's camera to deposit a check, and it's now partnering with PayPal to let customers pay almost anyone with an email address or mobile phone number.

-- Progressive Insurance offers Snapshot, a small telematics device that connects to the insured car's electronic diagnostic port. It lets Progressive analyze data from the device on your driving patterns and uses that to set your premium, promising savings up to 30% if you're a safe driver.

-- The Hamilton County, Indiana, sheriff's office has a smarter 911 call center. Each agent in the office can view five large screens that simultaneously show call status, caller information, police radio activity and other data--all of which can be shared over radio, phone, Internet, dispatch, and cellular systems.

-- There's a SmartMeter from utilities such as PG&E that lets consumers monitor their hourly energy usage and better manage their electric bills.

This growing research actually led me to a detour. I tried to find industries that were NOT thinking about smart products and services. An executive suggested I look at the portfolio of the legendary investor, Warren Buffett. He has made a fortune avoiding companies that are susceptible to technology turmoil. So, I looked at some of his investments. They include Coke, Burlington Northern, and Procter & Gamble, and found an Internet-linked vending machine, satellite-based railcar tracking, and social media innovations. They're actually very savvy technology innovators.

This disruption, however, requires a major shift in business attributes and attitudes, and my book highlights 12 attributes like the ones described below. While the CIO and IT teams may not be able to directly staff many of these skill sets, they can be a major contributor in helping hire appropriate talent and identify boutique specialty firms that provide such expertise that help companies embrace these areas:

-- Design Elegance: Tech savvy customers are used to gorgeous product design from the likes of Jonathan Ive at Apple, Google's Doodle team, and Robert Brunner, who designed the Nook and other devices. This is increasing demand for graduates of design schools and those of boutique firms specializing in product experience. The case study in the book is the Virgin America airline and how it has designed its in-cabin experience around technology--food and drink ordering, mood lighting, Wi-Fi, shopping, live TV, and on-demand movies and music.

-- Physical Presence: Brick and mortar retailers were supposed to be dying, but Apple retail stores in particular have proven that customers like to test drive devices and expect good service to go along with their purchase. As companies deliver their own smart devices, they are finding retailers like Home Depot and Walgreens are carrying plenty of technology on their shelves, and are enabling their employees with item location and customers with prescription refilling technology. The case study in the book is Taubman Shopping Centers, a mall owner that continues to thrive by landing tenants such as Apple, Bose, and other high-tech retail stores, and by making its own investment in digital infrastructure to attract the tech savvy consumer.

-- Paranoia: Technology vendors are used to the industry practices of product teardowns, jailbreaks, and hacks. The average company building a smart product needs to anticipate--indeed be paranoid about--similar treatment of their goods. The case study in the book is the Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform, a drone that has been retrofitted with network penetration and mobile phone conversation interception capability. It provides a glimpse of how sophisticated surveillance and hacking can be, even with a limited budget.

-- Sustainability: While every industry has some focus on reducing carbon emissions, sustainability in technology products has its own unique definition. It is expanding to include "conflict minerals" like tantalum, which come from the strife-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo, among other places. It also includes creativity in packaging materials and design. The case study in the book focuses on Google's green initiatives including its hyper-efficient data centers and its wide range of investments in wind, solar, geothermal and other clean energy.

Go to most industry events these days and the themes are predictable: cloud computing, Big Data, consumerization of IT. The big "aha" from my book research is that technology in product is finally allowing enterprise tech to generate revenue and growth. That's such a significant change from traditional IT, which for too long has been an expensive back-office investment. That's an exciting disruption that deserves to be the theme in more industry events--and a key focus for most CIOs.

The Enterprise 2.0 Conference brings together industry thought leaders to explore the latest innovations in enterprise social software, analytics, and big data tools and technologies. Learn how your business can harness these tools to improve internal business processes and create operational efficiencies. It happens in Boston, June 18-21. Register today!

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