4 min read

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.
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.

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