by Bob Violino

5 secrets of highly effective IoT strategies

Aug 08, 2017
Internet of ThingsIT LeadershipIT Strategy

A winning internet of things strategy requires strong leadership, clearly defined roles and a dedicated team. Pioneering IT leaders offer hard-earned advice for IoT success.

iot internet of things strategy briefcase
Credit: Thinkstock

The internet of things (IoT) is becoming more than just a buzzword for many organizations. The idea of connecting hundreds or thousands of products, corporate assets and other “things” via the internet to gather valuable data is a compelling proposition for companies in a variety of industries.

But building an effective IoT strategy isn’t simple. IoT involves a lot of moving parts (literally) and presents a number of major challenges. Here, IT leaders who have launched IoT projects offer valuable advice for those who are just beginning to formulate an IoT plan.

Appoint an IoT leader

Every effective IoT strategy requires a strong leader. This individual must have broad oversight into the various technical components of the IoT initiative and be able to guide a cohesive strategy to ensure everyone is on the same page. Your IoT leader can be a senior-level executive from IT, operations or even business leadership. Some experts have talked about the need for a chief IoT officer.

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“It is critical to have well-defined leadership driving the initiative,” says Scott Sandler, technology manager of cloud computing at Rockwell Automation, a provider of industrial automation technology.

“This could be a chief IoT officer or other position who has the appropriate authority to drive the needed change in the organization,” Sandler says. “This leader also becomes critical in setting the strategy and ensuring that even as technology changes — as it does so fast in this space — you stay true to your strategy.”

Rockwell in 2011 began an IoT effort as an extension of its existing business. Its IoT initiative enables the company’s customers to connect their industrial equipment and systems to the cloud so they can better analyze operational data and enhance decision support for operational technology and IT users.

Rockwell is working with Microsoft to make sure it has a secure industrial IoT platform that can scale to meet customers’ growing data gathering needs, and to facilitate data movement through the enterprise.

Create a distinct IoT organization

If IoT is intended to be a significant component of your company’s business model, a dedicated IoT organization within the enterprise is essential.

Schneider Electric, a provider of energy management and automation products, is building a strategy to capture efficiencies driven primarily by the convergence of operational technology and IT.

Behind that convergence is the acceleration of IoT, and the company has created a dedicated, global IoT and digital transformation group to oversee efforts in this area.

The group oversees a Digital Service Factory, which comprises an extended team of developers who work with business units to design and develop new and innovative IoT applications designed to address known customer needs.

“We work to harness the power and promise of the IoT by developing the digital platform technology that seamlessly brings together energy, automation and software,” says Cyril Perducat, executive vice president of IoT and digital transformation at Schneider Electric, who heads up the group.

“We are committed to translating data into actionable intelligence and the ability for our customers to make better business decisions at any time,” Perducat says. “To us, data is meaningless until it can address real customer needs.”

Schneider Electric has created EcoStruxure, an IoT-enabled open and interoperable architecture and platform that leverages advancements in IoT, mobility, sensing, cloud, analytics and cyber security. EcoStruxure combines connected products and edge control systems with applications, analytics and services, and is currently deployed in more than 450,000 installations, connecting more than 1 billion devices.

“EcoStruxure enables Schneider Electric, our partners, and end-user customers to develop scalable and converged IT/OT solutions that leverage connectivity and data to create this actionable business insight,” Perducat says. “We make this happen with the combined power of analytics and closed-loop applications” that collect data from sensors, products, cloud services and other sources, and analyze the data for meaningful insight.

Clearly define IoT roles

No IoT initiative will succeed without the right people in the right IoT roles. IoT encompasses a broad swath of the business, and if the wrong skills are being applied to particular components, the IoT endeavor could fail.

Chemicals maker Texmark Chemicals over the past year has been working with HPE Aruba to explore ways it can use IoT in the production of chemicals. The goal was to use IoT technologies to help increase plant safety, efficiencies in processes and worker production.

The IoT-related products Texmark is using include predictive analytics, advanced video analytics and lifecycle asset management.

“For every chemical Texmark makes, two kinds of predictive analytics can be applied: discrete and process,” says Douglas Smith, Texmark’s CEO. “Discrete analytics gives us information about the equipment used — pumps, filters, reactors, distillation towers — and will allow us to predict and prevent equipment failure.”

Process analytics allows the company to take data from the discrete analytics and make changes to its processes, based on what is going on within the discrete units, to improve the continuous process of making chemicals.

Another IoT component is video analytics, which the company uses for real-time video streaming on tanks or pumps to determine a spill or leak. And lifecycle asset management will allow Texmark to track all assets, from purchase to installation to maintenance to end of lifecycle.

A key part of Texmark’s IoT strategy is assigning the individuals most closely involved with a particular process to the various IoT processes and solutions.

“For example, our lead engineer is the lead on predictive analytics and data management, and our plant safety director is the lead on safety and security,” Smith says. “Each of them is responsible for those aspects of IoT. We want the person who best understands the process to be in charge.”

That doesn’t mean individual IoT roles should be autonomous. As head of the company, Smith is overseeing the overall IoT program, but he says delegating tasks to the most qualified people and keeping everyone in the loop is a key to success.

“In order to get buy-in from the people on the team, we need to let them know what we’re trying to do, and ask how we can best support them,” Smith says. “Texmark can have the most state-of-the-art technology, IoT solutions, magic robots, etc. But if the people making the chemicals don’t have buy in, it will not work.”

Build a culture of secure IoT

One of the biggest concerns about IoT is the security and privacy of data — and with good reason. There have been incidents of hacked cars and of denial-of-service (DoS) attacks launched from connected products.

Ensuring the security of devices, sensors, networks and applications should be a top priority for any IoT strategy.

“Establishing and maintaining a successful IoT organization [should] include the development of strong data and privacy policies,” says Bill Thirsk, vice president of IT and CIO at Marist College.

Marist is working on advanced research with a company in the late stages of IoT product and service development. The company’s technology gathers bio-digital health information via wireless access from sensors worn by individuals who have some level of health risk.

Data such as vital signs and other indicators of general health is provided by the sensors and collected in real time, and predictive algorithms compare changes in vital signs against known histories. The monitoring devices persistently stream data using secure wireless protocols to remain constantly connected to monitoring systems and medical services, Thirsk says.

“All of our IoT projects required the inclusion of devices from many manufacturers, from cheap sensors to wireless and traditional network devices, to firewalls and load balancers,” Thirsk says. “A reliable system must be designed specifically as an IoT carrier and every device, no matter how small, must be registered so that data transmissions can be assured from end to end. And in the case of some data, [it should be] fully encrypted, at least at collection or bundling points.”

As part of developing the culture of IoT security, “have a team lead that can tell the [security] story, set and explain security constraints, build and morph the team as the project matures, and continuously communicate to the team and to stakeholders,” Thirsk says. “While there is not yet a title in the common language for this role, it can best be described as a senior project engineer.”

Leverage IoT expertise from outside

With IoT still rapidly evolving, standards for network connectivity, devices and other components are, in many cases, still being developed. As such, many companies don’t currently have the expertise to handle all aspects of IoT in-house, let alone keep up with the changes. Here, outside expertise can help.

Hargrove, a general contractor for trade shows, events and exhibits, is exploring how IoT can help it better track items it ships to events for customers. The company needs to keep track of freight from its warehouse to customers’ booths at events such as trade shows.

“We are evaluating better [technology] than just barcodes or RFID [radio frequency identification] or a combination to be able to track, weigh and bill the customer,” says Barr Snyderwine, director of information systems and technology at Hargrove.

“The IoT would be from our first receipt and actively track from warehouse to truck to weight to customer portal to their email/text/app to convention center to booth,” Snyderwine says.

The hope is that IoT will automate many of the tasks involved so that staffers do not need to be manually checking for when items are shipped, when they’re received, how much needs to be billed to the customer, how many items such as chairs and tables are in inventory, and so on. Ultimately, IoT could help the company gain efficiencies in operations, reducing the time and cost needed to deliver services and goods to customers.

But Hargrove’s IT expertise does not include the ability to build and maintain the infrastructure and tools needed for such an IoT operation.

“Our planned best practices are to hire a consulting company who knows how to implement IoT and form a user community in-house to own the process and system,” Snyderwine says. “The issue I foresee will be user adoption. Our business moves so fast that every system has to be quick, efficient and easy to use.”