IoT’s People Problem

By Dr. Peter Hirst

This spring, I participated in three major IoT-focused events and came away with mixed feelings about the state of the industry. The first was the Internet of Things World in Santa Clara, California. The conference tends to focus on more technological aspects of IoT and draws thousands of attendees. A few days later, I flew to London to take part in the Internet of Things World Forum (IoTWF), an invitation-only event that caters to the C-suite audience. The third was a board meeting and strategy workshop for the Internet of Things Talent Consortium, a spinoff from the IoTWF, of which MIT Sloan Executive Education is a founding member. The three events were highly educational, thought provoking and inspirational in their own right, but all shared a common theme—we, the people, are the main barrier to faster and wider IoT adoption. Moreover, it’s the very nature of humanity, our habits and idiosyncrasies that seem to be stalling the robots’ march toward making our lives wonderfully better—or toward total world domination, depending on how you look at it. More seriously, here are some themes that emerged in my mind once the conference excitement wore off.

Stop Resisting Change

People are creatures of habit. We are comfortable with what we know. It’s not laziness—it’s an evolutionary trick we’ve developed to survive as a species. New is scary and we tend to resist it, willfully or subconsciously, but this resistance can hinder progress. For example, as we heard from the main stage at IoT World Forum in London, GE— who is one of the earliest and relatively successful entrants into IoT—sees organizational inertia as one of the biggest problems in digital transformation. Culture clashes between different kinds of businesses within an organization are dragging down the entire enterprise. Traditional engineers and digital engineers are not speaking the same language. Business leaders are not yet adept in the ways of leading required to drive a digitally-enabled transformation. At IoT World, I was on a panel discussing the future leadership needs around IoT. The panel featured professionals in different industries from education to talent recruitment to defense. And what everybody was saying is that when you look at executives, the need to have agility and resilience is just as great as the need for people who can understand both the technology and the business. In the IoT era, leaders need to have awareness of all sorts of business-environment issues, as well as other important concerns, such as privacy and cyber security, regulation and public policy. Whether it’s strictly IoT or not, you could see that in examples like Uber or Airbnb, as they’ve run into public policy, regulatory and other kinds of situations. I think it’s fairly self-evident that it would be hard for those businesses to succeed without having leaders who are able to take on those kinds of aspects as well.

I’ve touched upon this subject previously, and hearing from companies like GE only reinforced my impression that there is an immediate need to not only train the workers who will work on the IoT implementation, but also to educate leaders on how to lead the transformation. In light of this, the IoT Talent Consortium is redoubling its efforts to help organizations understand and analyze that question. The group sees itself as a community where digital-transformation pioneers and people who believe that they need to or want to go through this kind of journey can share experiences and identify successful practices.

Solve Real Needs

On the other side of the spectrum are the people who are curious and willing to try new things, to innovate. However, to turn innovation into business success, one needs to be mindful of commercial viability. And that’s actually something, which for a long time has been at the core of how MIT teaches innovation. A business idea must be financially viable, not only technologically feasible. You need to have a market that goes beyond early adopters in order to make money in a sustainable way. What I’ve observed at these IoT conferences is that there is a lot of noise at the moment. People are coming up with all sorts of fun ideas—from a connected toilet paper holder to a smart toaster—and maybe even getting capital because it’s sexy to invest in something called “IoT,” but these ideas ultimately may be solutions to problems that people just don’t care enough about or there isn’t actually a viable and sustainable economic model around them.

Experiment with Caution

One answer may be, well, it’s a perfectly fine thing to have lots of entrepreneurs and innovators out there trying all these things and then ultimately the market will decide. That’s how the investment industry works—VC firms classically having a portfolio of innovative startups not all of which will succeed, but enough of them will do well enough. But it doesn’t help you much if you are in that company or that startup or a big company that’s exploring some new technology. So what approach can people take?

I go back to what I see most often being suggested by our faculty in Exec Ed programs and in other places where they are writing and talking and that is: figure out how to run experiments that won’t break the bank, so you can learn and adapt.

Think Beyond Talking Toasters

To be sure, myriad ideas are out there—some better than others—but are we thinking big enough? According to Dr. Sanjay Sarma, the Dean of Digital Learning and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, business people are not dreaming enough. Sarma is considered one of the founding fathers of IoT by way of the invention of RFID, and he shared some of his thoughts on the subject in a recent conversation. He believes that we owe a debt of gratitude to science-fiction writers for imagining, years ago, many of the things that we take for granted today. Admittedly, sci-fi writers engaged in thought experiments, not start-ups, but the boldness of their vision inspired many amazing innovations. We may not have flying cars (yet), but we do carry around with us every day very small and very powerful devices that connect us to vast amounts of knowledge. Sarma sees small thinking as the biggest barrier to IoT adoption. In his opinion, understanding the technology is easy, but being able to have a bold vision and to develop a strategy for the technology to match that vision—that’s where most people fail.

He also cautions strongly against inaction. Despite human foibles, IoT is happening and it is affecting—or will soon affect—every part of the economy.

Sarma believes that to stay in business, business leaders need to understand just enough of the technological aspects of IoT to be able to articulate their vision. And that’s not something that can happen organically. Business leaders need to make a concerted effort to educate themselves and their teams on the new rules of business in the IoT world.

Start a Global Conversation

Ironically, perhaps, the connected world of things can only succeed if people connect—across industries, sectors of society, and across borders. Sarma emphasizes—and I wholeheartedly agree—that we need to have a serious, global conversation about IoT. Governments and universities, civic groups and corporations should work together to develop solutions made possible by IoT and much needed by people. From clean energy and water to efficient transportation and home appliances to healthcare and education, IoT-enabled possibilities to improve human lives in meaningful ways are boundless. Now it’s up to us to make them happen.

Dr. Peter Hirst leads the team of professionals who partner with clients and faculty at the MIT Sloan School of Management to develop, design, and deliver innovative executive education programs for individuals and companies.


Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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