Op-Ed: Are We There Yet? Catching Up With the Internet of Things

Op-Ed: Are We There Yet? Catching Up With the Internet of Things

BY Peter Hirst, Associate Dean of Executive Education, MIT Sloan School of Management Posted: 9 Dec 2016

As a believer in tech-powered economic opportunities, I can’t help but feel disappointed when a highly promising technology doesn’t develop as rapidly as forecasts would have it. In 2010, Hans Vestburg, the former CEO of Ericssson envisioned 50 billion connected devices by 2020, a number he shared in a shareholders presentation that year. In 2012, IBM went even higher—1 trillion connected devices by 2015.

Numbers like that are certainly very exciting. Now we are in 2016, and the Internet of Things (IoT) predictions have grown more modest, indeed. “IHS Markit projects 30.7 billion IoT devices for 2020, and Gartner expects 20.8 billion by that time (excluding smartphones, tablets, and computers). Lastly, IDC anticipates 28.1 billion (again, not counting those devices),” reports IEEE Spectrum, the magazine and website of the IEEE, the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and the applied sciences, and perhaps an entity less likely to give into market hype than other publications.

However, this cooling down of expectations may actually be good news for companies involved in or trying to break into the IoT economy. Why is that? The answer is simple—the hype adjustment may mean that employers have a little more time to develop or recruit talent needed to set them up for success, once the IoT economy becomes an inevitable reality.

Hype adjustment

Why such a big disconnect between early forecasts and today? Are we sinking into the “trough of disillusionment,” as illustrated by Gartner’s “Hype Cycle” model?

Source: ©2014 Gartner

IEEE offers a thorough analysis of the challenges inherent in predicting IoT success, but reading the article led me to look at the IoT technology-evolution cycle from the perspective of industries that would have to live up to those lofty initial predictions. Are manufacturers, employers and people in general ready for this new world of connected machines? What is holding us back?

Well, security certainly is turning out to be one of the most pressing IoT issues. And when home and office printers and security cameras get hacked, it’s hard not to think about potential dangers of the same happening to driverless cars or self-operating heavy machinery. The tech security industry is working tirelessly to address the issue—this year’s annual Black Hat conference focused specifically on the IoT vulnerabilities—but it’s easy to see why the business community may want to proceed with caution. 

The Human Factor

All these predictions—the astronomical and the more realistic—tend to focus on devices and components: sensors, semiconductors, networks, data centers, and software. It is the Internet of THINGS, after all. But the most important challenge is a perceived dearth of human resources to power the IoT economy. It seems that employers—tech giants and startups alike—are struggling to find qualified professionals to enable and support IoT growth. In a post last year, I discussed this issue in depth and parts of it are worth revisiting.

Many of the jobs that are difficult to fill in the IoT space require scientists and engineers, to be sure. It is interesting to note, therefore, that a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) posits that the notion of STEM worker shortage is a myth. The EPI study found that the United States has "more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations." Somehow, nearly half of these people have chosen to work in other fields because they couldn’t find jobs in the tech sector (IT jobs account for 59% of STEM workforce, according to the study). Despite sustained investment in STEM education and programs nationwide, the tech sector, it seems, is losing talent to other industries.

So why aren't tech employers hiring when IoT appears to be so critical to their future success and the need for talent is clearly dire? The answer seems to be, at least in part, the widening gap between industry needs and available, qualified people who, increasingly required to manage their own careers and professional development, are prepared for these new roles.

Where are the Skills Gaps?

Something particularly striking that we are hearing from larger companies is that the skills and experience shortages they are struggling with go beyond finding people with particular technical proficiencies. We are learning that many crucial IoT roles require people who have complementary skills in adjacent—or even disparate—disciplines. For example, we need:

  • Data analysts who also have a deep understanding of privacy and data stewardship
  • Network engineers who also understand hardware and security
  • Technical specialists who understand the business domains they are working in
  • Engineers with business acumen and the exceptional soft skills required to work in agile, multi-disciplinary teams that can combine these skills and experiences across individuals, industries and cultures.

Moreover, it is not just engineers and technical talent who are in short supply. We also need leaders in business, government and the third sector who are able to understand the potential and the challenges of IoT so that they can create and lead organizations that will make IoT a reality, and do so in a way that maximizes the benefits and avoids the many potential pitfalls.
 

Thus IoT and digitization demand different experiences and new skill sets from today's workforce, changing every job before our eyes. We need to prepare for job functions and qualifications we don't even know exist yet. How can we optimize the training-to-job path? How can people build on the skills they already have?

Next-Generation Talent Development Model

We need a new model that will ensure that people become not only specialists in their field, but more importantly, lifelong learners. As they progress through careers, existing skills must be honed and new ones acquired, and at a much faster pace. We need to shift our thinking from a linear process of school-to-job to a more spiral-like approach where people continually acquire new skills, as the market demands them. Some industries like medicine and architecture require continuing education from its professionals to be able to continue to practice. This would be a start, but the change we need in the technology-enabled industries to shape the workforce of the future must be much more dynamic.

Of course, it would be optimistic to simply expect people to spontaneously acquire new skills in the hopes of landing a dream tech job—the lack of transparency and visibility (especially over the career horizon) is a fundamental problem. That's why industry, education, government and non-profits must work closely to develop a new approach to talent cultivation. Together, we could set new standards and develop new processes to match talent supply with skyrocketing demand. Cross-sector collaboration will be essential to achieve meaningful change, as individual players can't do it alone. Yet such a systemic and collaborative approach to meeting future industry talent needs has always been elusive.

The IoT Talent Consortium

In 2014, the second annual Internet of Things World Forum brought together a group of leaders from the tech industry, academia, government agencies, and non-profits who recognized the need for creating such a collaborative body of cross-sector stakeholders. The IoT Talent Consortium was founded soon thereafter as a non-profit collective devoted to solving the problem of the economy’s need for a new breed of interdisciplinary talent. Its mission is to become the go-to reference for IoT professional qualifications, career development and talent acquisition. Since its founding, the Consortium has already been joined by globally prominent companies and institutions, including CiscoThe Walt Disney Company, GERockwell Automationthe New York Academy of Science, and MIT Sloan School of Management. I am proud to represent MIT and MIT Sloan Executive Education in this dedicated group! 

We all have a role in fostering an environment that will propel talent into a dynamic IoT economy because without the right talent, the potential social and economic benefits of the Internet of Things will not be realized. With the IoT Talent Consortium, we can have direct influence in shaping the educational and recruitment solutions that accelerate IoT workforce preparation, participate in organizational policy and program development.

In the meantime, here is a handy IoT vocabulary guide put together by IEEE Spectrum that covers things like M2M, V2P, and BYOW among other acronyms and terms, which spellcheck doesn’t recognize quite yet.

Dr. Peter Hirst is Associate Dean of Executive Education at MIT Sloan School of Management

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