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Has the Internet of Things lost its luster?

Date Posted: 
Mon, 03/23/2020
Peter Hirst, Associate Dean for Executive Education at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a founding board member of the IoT Talent Consortium.

In terms of tech adoption, what does it mean when yesterday’s dreams become today’s nightmares? From murderous autonomous vehicles to spying smart speakers, IoT-enabled products seem to be getting their share of bad publicity lately. If our fascination with a certain technology has turned into contempt, does it mean this technology has finally arrived?

There is much spirited discussion in the media about whether the Internet of Things is maturing as an industry—or if it even could, considering the neck-breaking pace of technological innovation. But market indicators point to its continuing growth across an increasing variety of sectors, signaling, as one report puts it, “tempered optimism.”

[caption] A survey of Bain IoT customers

This is where I and my colleagues in the Internet of Things Talent Consortium see a major disconnect—IoT has been around for a while now and continues to grow, yet the widespread adoption needed to turn dreams into reality is still lagging. Why might this be?

Since its inception in 2014, The Internet of Things Talent Consortium (IoT TC)—of which MIT Sloan School of Management Executive Education is proud to be a founding member—has focused on helping industries “inspire, create and grow the organizations and workforces needed to drive IoT-enabled digital transformation in every sector.” This year’s two-day Annual Members Meeting, hosted jointly by the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) and Rockwell Automation Global Headquarters in Milwaukee this summer, made it clear that the challenges, which the Consortium was formed to tackle, are still as relevant as they were five years ago. A lot of work remains to be done in organizations—at all levels and across functions—before we can truly capitalize on the promise of IoT.

Overcoming systematic resistance

When Dr. John Carrier, Senior Lecturer in System Dynamics at MIT Sloan School of Management, talked about the concept of “hidden factories,” many people in the audience nodded in agreement. To wit, even when managers at manufacturing operations decide to implement technological solutions meant to increase efficiency and performance, the operation’s existing processes and personnel may not be ready or willing to comply.

A leading expert on manufacturing and industrial quality improvement, Carrier stressed the importance of data, the right data, and analyzing the right data in the right way to help improve industrial performance and manufacturing more broadly. Interestingly, Carrier didn’t talk about the IoT technology per se or how to actually implement it. Instead he underscored the enormous potential of the Industrial IoT in helping organizations get data from the instrumentation and insights into these processes. “Access to technology is no longer a barrier,” he said. “The system will resist adopting your innovation. The key is to observe the process before, during and after the use of your innovation, and design your product or service accordingly.” Carrier’s new executive education program Implementing Industry 4.0: Leading Change in Manufacturing & Operations is designed to help manufacturing executives and frontline leaders implement technological change at their companies while developing a company culture that puts people first.

Fostering cross-sector collaboration 

In Milwaukee, the Talent Consortium heard from several senior business leaders, including Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft. Smith was in town to mark the launch of a new initiative at the UWM called the Connected Systems Institute (CSI), which Microsoft co-sponsored. So it was only fitting that he joined the IoT TC meeting on campus. The initiative at UWM is a great illustration of industry partnering with academia and with government and other players to try to create these new programs, facilities, and capabilities for developing the next-generation manufacturing talent pool.

Leading by example

Robert Murphy, Senior Vice President, Connected Enterprise at Rockwell Automation, spoke to us about how Rockwell is building IoT-connected factory automation systems for companies in manufacturing, which at the same time is helping them achieve significant new efficiencies. Rockwell is constructing exemplar factories that manufacture their own products, but doing it in a way that completely uses all that IoT instrumentation and advanced manufacturing capabilities that they can showcase to customers, as well.

Prioritizing people skills vs. people with skills

Several presenters emphasized the importance of non-technical skills for the workforce of the future. Leah Jewell, who is the Managing Director of Career Development and Employability at Pearson, the education publishing and media company, shared new research that Pearson has done about work skills of the future and how important are the so-called “soft skills”: communication and motivation, critical thinking and decision-making, negotiation, conflict resolution, relationship building, etc. Many people worried that calling them “soft” diminishes their importance when, in fact, those are in many ways the scarcest and most sought-after skill sets across the board and especially among the technical talent. Calling these skills “social and cultural” instead may compel more professionals to pay attention.

David Vasko, Director of Advanced Technology at Rockwell Automation and one of the co-founders of the Talent Consortium, shared a recent experience with being unable to fill a key role in his organization for a year, only to realize that he was looking for someone with a minimum of five years experience in a job function that didn’t even exist three years ago. “In the end, I recalibrated,” he recalled. “I went back to HR, redid the job description. The problem was, in a sense, I had the job description for the job that I need doing but there is no one that fits that job description. We couldn’t find the candidates.” With the new job description, Vasko set out to look for people who demonstrate the ability to learn and adapt, and a variety of other core skills. He ended up hiring an astrophysicist, who apparently is working out very well. I think Vasko’s story is an interesting illustration of companies having to go to new, non-traditional wells looking for the talent that they need for these new roles.

Investing in a learning culture

Questions and issues around corporate culture always result in lively discussions at the IoT TC meetings, and this year was no exception. George Westerman, Principal Research Scientist with the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy and a popular guest speaker at the Talent Consortium gatherings, shared insights from his latest research on corporate learning and talent development.

Both Westerman’s research and the findings by Pearson point to a lack of centralized or systematic learning structures in the hundreds of large and medium-sized organizations surveyed. The idea of a Chief Learning Officer, for example, is still far from universal. That was a little sobering for us all—to think that organizations have such long ways to go in terms of their human capital and learning needs.

Engaging top leadership

At the end of the two-day meeting, I facilitated a wrap-up workshop to reflect on what we had heard, our next steps as a group, and what each of us should be doing individually in our own organizations. One particular challenge stood out in stark relief—the ability to articulate and communicate the nature of these IoT-related and digital transformation challenges to the C-suite. At the Talent Consortium meeting, we were hearing about the examples of when they were engaged in the right way, then their companies were able to get things moving. I believe that it’s going to be an important work stream for the Consortium over the coming months to further increase our knowledge and not only share but also to create communication tools and examples and cases that people can use to drive these conversations in their own boardrooms.

To sum up, if industry surveys are to be believed, there is a sense of urgency across many different sectors around IoT and a real need to speed up its adoption. However, no meaningful change can take place until an organization’s senior leadership is on board and organizational learning structures are put in place. Discussions on these and other related topics will be front and center at the next IoT Talent Consortium Members Meeting. Meanwhile, for anyone interested in a deeper dive into the economic potential of IoT, George Westerman leads the “Internet of Things: Business Implications and Opportunities” online course at MIT Sloan Executive Education, available several times throughout the year. IoT TC is making plans for the next in-person meeting later this year, so stay tuned for updates.  

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