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Rise Of Things: IoT's Role In Business Processes

Consider these three key ways businesses can improve and transform their operations with Internet of things technologies.

The perfect digital storm of mobile, social, cloud, analytics and connected devices (a.k.a. "Things") is transforming businesses, governments, and consumers at an alarming rate. The societal impacts will be felt for generations to come and it's my firm belief that businesses will determine their own fate by either leveraging or ignoring this revolution. 

But collaboration and orchestration between humans and "Things" are necessary to achieve this tremendous potential. Here's why.

Things -- including connected objects from smartphones with rich sensor capabilities to robots in homes, manufacturing plants and businesses -- are becoming a tour de force in digitization. A 2013 study by The Economist found that three quarters of businesses are interested in IoT; a staggering 96% plan to incorporate Things into their portfolio within the next three years.

[If IoT is going to work, networks must grant access to devices we'd refuse today. Read Internet Of Things Will Turn Networks Inside-Out]

There are huge opportunities to make Things better with the proliferation of IoT homes, cars (telematics), cities, healthcare, and manufacturing.

Here are three key ways businesses can transform their operations with IoT technologies:

1. Elevate the focus from technology to processes
The real digital transformation of IoT will happen through digital processes. Cisco (which characterizes IoT as Internet of Everything), believes people, data, and processes are essential components. A key requirement for the success of IoT is the end-to-end digitization of processes. What do I mean by processes? A process has (a) inputs; (b) execution of tasks; and (c) business outcome upon completion of the tasks.

Traditionally, process automation was coordinated around humans, business partners, or enterprise applications. That landscape is changing with the rise of Things. Take, for example, a complex and dynamic digital process: the coordination of the arrival and departure of an airplane in a busy airport. The business outcome is the timely departure. The participants include airport staff (baggage, refueling, catering) as well as Things that can be queried for sensor data or asked to carry out tasks. Autonomous or semi-autonomous Things are becoming active participants in business processes.

So IT in increasingly digital enterprises needs to provide not only the technology infrastructure for Things, but also a business process automation platform for making Things part of business outcomes. Thing tasks can be as simple as responding with a sensor value (e.g. what is the cabin temperature?) or as complex as how to circumnavigate a fast-moving storm.

2. Handling crisis events and digitizing change
How do these processes with Things get manifested? The airport example above illustrates a "happy path" coordinating humans and Things. However, one of the most pervasive use cases for Things is sensing (through IoT sensors) a crisis event and then activating a digitized end-to-end process to respond to it. This happens when there is a vehicle accident, boiler explosion, security alarm, or elevated blood pressure. The Thing autonomously senses and then either directly, or through a brokering layer, activates an exception process. This typically includes monitoring back-office and field workers to respond and resolve the problem.

3. Thing data analytics
Often, it's not merely an individual event that starts a process. Big data will eventually become "Thing Data." Through our connected homes, connected cities, and industries (such as power plants), Things are generating enormous amounts of data. Visualization of the data and analytics can be applied to streams of sensor data that are then handled via automated processes involving humans and Things. In a connected city that may have hundreds of thousands of sensors on city infrastructures, this could be applied for transportation, pollution sensing, or power grids.

For example, in a connected city application, multiple sensors could be monitoring pollution levels in the air or water. Then, if the critical levels are reached from this analysis of "thing data" over a period of time, exception handling processes would kick in. The difference from what I describe in the No. 2 point is that the exception here is detected and analyzed from multiple sources and typically over a period of time versus a single event. Both are important use cases in dealing with a situation through a digitized automated process.

While some dismiss it as hype, the pervasiveness of the Internet of Things is unquestionable.  Estimates show there will be 25 billion to 1 trillion connected Things by 2020. These all must be coordinated with people and applications within the enterprise through business processes. After all, isolated things have little value.

The Internet of Things demands reliable connectivity, but standards remain up in the air. Here's how to kick your IoT strategy into high gear. Get the new IoT Goes Mobile issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest today. (Free registration required.)