The IoT platform dilemma


At the end of 2015, Gartner predicted that “Through 2018, 80% of IoT implementations will squander transformational opportunities by focusing on narrow use-cases and analytics.” At the beginning of 2019, David Socha takes a look back and wonders if they were right.

Put simply, the answer is yes, they were. To date, we really haven’t seen the kind of IoT-led transformations so hyped in recent years. Sure, we’ve seen some interesting projects and capabilities. But actual transformations? Hmmm. Not so much.

Why not? Should we all have been much bolder; building strong foundations for transformation, investing in end-to-end platforms capable of supporting our wildest dreams? Maybe…but maybe not. That kind of investment has its risks.

If I build it, will they come1?

Everyone has a favourite ERP implementation disaster story. And while many factors from dodgy technology to lazy budgeting to poor understanding of requirements contribute to these tales of woe, one thing is clear: big IT programmes can and do fail. Even if the technology works perfectly and the programme comes in on time and to budget, poor change management can still lead to users failing to adopt new tools, rendering the investment valueless. Such risks can make businesses reluctant to invest in big new programmes, even in times of great challenge and opportunity.

That said, survey after survey reconfirms that businesses do see the value in digitalisation and do see the need to transform to remain competitive in a rapidly changing environment. But if Gartner is right and doing the little stuff is squandering the real opportunities, what’s the alternative? Must it be to go all-in once again and build an entire IoT platform, then sit back, waiting for the magical transformation to happen?

A different approach

My answer to the last question above is a resounding no. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m immediately discounting working with the many IoT platform vendors out there today. Teradata partners with many of them already and we clearly see their value. They’re likely to have many – though not all – of the pieces of the IoT puzzle your business will need to fit together. They’ll bring experience of other engagements. They’ll have great ideas.

But an end-to-end, platform-first approach is still not the answer. All those familiar massive IT programme risks still apply. To help introduce the alternative, let me do a little editing of that Gartner quote from earlier. It’s my belief that:

Through 2018, 80% of IoT implementations squandered transformational opportunities by focusing on quick, point solutions, with little or no thought towards standards, scale or re-usability.

I have nothing against quick solutions. Quick is good. But not if the quick solution to each departmental problem needs new and different comms capabilities; new security measures; new custom integrations. Narrow use-cases can be good too, as long as they’re solving something that needs to be solved and they’re doing it using methods that can be repeated; standards that will allow integration and management; and with solutions that can scale up as data volumes rise.

But every time a department or division goes out on their own to solve their own little problem with no consideration of the bigger picture, your organisation is adding yet another layer of complexity. This parochial, short-sighted approach to technology is one key reason why there can be no transformation. Fortunately, it’s a problem that can be addressed – and without up-front investment in another massive IT programme.

Standards, scalability, reusability

Just as today, go on finding opportunities that will deliver value from IoT data. Get on and deliver on one of those opportunities, then another and another. But ensure that from now on, your business does it with an eye to the future. No proprietary protocols. No vendor-lock-ins. No skunkworks to get around policies or departments that might disagree with you. Instead, think standards; think scalability; think re-usability. This is what the over-used phrase “start small, think big” really means.

Yes, it’ll be complicated at times. The world of IoT standards is a somewhat confusing and crowded landscape right now. But this is always the case. No new discipline has ever been in a position to sit back and wait for standards to mature and be agreed across all parties before getting on and delivering something. It doesn’t mean we just do what we like, delivering every project to whatever standard suits that department or vendor.

We must choose standards that work for us; that have the flexibility to evolve and adapt; that don’t mean a vendor lock-in; that can be applied in many projects, many departments, many relationships. And to vendors. And to partners. And to our own increasing integration and connectivity and bottom-up progress towards what will become that IoT platform of our dreams.

As data volumes increase, massive scalability in data management, integration and analysis will be critical. It is no economy to create a solution that works for the first year of a project but has to be entirely re-engineered when data volumes increase or when a second or third project needs to share that data. Think scalability, right from the beginning. Once again: start small, think big.

And think re-usability. Yes, you’ll have to develop things for your first projects. But think about how what you develop could benefit other projects. Did you develop an app or even some code that used augmented reality techniques to bring servicing information to engineers working on Siemens turbines? How much of that work could be re-used to extend the capability to all turbines? Or to another class of rotating equipment? Or to all rotating equipment?

Have you integrated asset history and specifications from your ERP with operational data from your Historians to better predict deterioration in circuit breakers? What else could be done with that integration? Could that same data influence purchasing decisions? Resource management? Only if you’ve integrated it with a view to re-usability. Only if you’ve chosen standards that support more than just your personal or departmental KPIs.

A new Field of Dreams?

It is true that to date, we really haven’t seen much in the way of genuine IoT-enabled transformation. But building and end-to-end IoT platform and waiting for the users to adopt it in their droves won’t change that.

Transformation may well be technology-enabled, but it isn’t technology-led. Rather than spending years building a platform that will probably be out-of-date (and circumvented) by the time it’s ready, it’s time to once again start small, but think big. Think standards; think scalability; and think re-usability.

Transformation is coming. The IoT is here already. Start exploiting it today. But do it with an eye to tomorrow and to the rest of your business’ life. It could be up to you how long that is.

1 Misquoting the famous “if you build it, he will come” from Field of Dreams (1989).

About the author
David Socha is Teradata’s Practice Partner for the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT). He began his career as a hands-on electrical distribution engineer, keeping the lights on in Central Scotland, before becoming a part of ScottishPower’s electricity retail deregulation programme in the late 1990s. After a period in IT management and consulting roles, David joined Teradata to found their International Utilities practice, later also taking on responsibilities in Smart Cities and the wider Industrial IoT sector.