by Mary K. Pratt

Internet of Things Prompts IT to Borrow Startup Strategy

Sep 26, 20144 mins
CareersInternetIT Strategy

Whirlpool staffs like a startup for big IoT projects, asking IT, R&D, marketing and engineering to collaborate.

Whirlpool, a huge company with 69,000 employees and $19 billion in sales, is borrowing startup strategies as it builds its Internet of Things capabilities–and IT is intimately involved. The appliance maker has put employees from various functions, including marketing, product development, finance, procurement and IT, into what it calls a Connectivity Team to work collaboratively in one physical space.

The nimble team brings technology expertise, business perspective, consumer requirements and operational considerations to the product-development process from start to finish, says Brett Dibkey, VP and general manager of Integrated Business Units. “There’s one objective for everyone, and that single objective is to launch a successful product in the market,” Dibkey says.

The promise of the Internet of Things–the connection of machines to the Internet via sensors–is prompting Whirlpool to integrate more technology into its washers, refrigerators and other household appliances so they can interact with the company’s IT systems and the customer’s in-home technology. Such smart devices are easier to maintain and bring the opportunity to sell new services to consumers and suppliers. For instance, a machine can alert Whirlpool and its owner to needed maintenance and order required parts.

To support this new business segment, Whirlpool is building an ecosystem of applications through which appliances connect to other systems, and IT plays a pivotal role, says Whirlpool CIO Mike Heim.

IT brings critical skills to Internet of Things projects, Heim says, including knowledge of enterprise architecture, networking, cloud, systems integration and security. Also important is delivering systems with high availability, redundancy and resiliency, as smart devices are designed to be in constant use. Analytics skills, of course, come into play, as products feed information back to companies for analysis. “We have good vision on how this integrates into our traditional business and changes our business model for how we deliver service,” Heim says.

But because the Internet of Things requires significant collaboration with other units, IT staffers also need interpersonal and business skills, Dibkey says. For instance, when Whirlpool works with partner Nest Labs, a high-tech home-products company, the IT team members serve as liaisons to ensure “the technologies between the two companies can talk together” to achieve strategic goals, he says.

This illustrates IT’s importance on an Internet of Things team, Heim says. IT professionals are the ones best able to understand each player’s technology stack and how data will flow between them.

The work of Whirlpool’s IT department on Internet of Things projects is part of a push to be better aligned overall with the company’s other business units, says Heim, who has been at the company for about two years. The Internet of Things–at Whirlpool and elsewhere–has opened up an exciting new area of expertise for IT professionals, he says, although he doesn’t necessarily see it branching into a career path separate from existing IT roles.

“Is it a hot area right now? Yes, and it will be increasingly important to us. Is there a wave to ride here for some period of time? Yes,” he says. But a new technology doesn’t always shake up careers. Rather, it’s one more important skill to acquire, he says.

Eric Openshaw, a consultant at Deloitte, says IT should counsel business colleagues on Internet of Things opportunities and contribute strategic thinking about security and privacy matters. If IT fails to provide good advice, companies may opt to outsource instead, leaving “IT on the outside looking in,” he says.

Heim and Dibkey agree that their Connectivity Team’s interdisciplinary nature will be key to its success, and IT’s contribution is critical. “The IT function should be a net exporter of talent to the business, and if we can do that better than our competitors, then we can win,” Heim says.