"I work in operations, not in IT or innovation – so it's not my role to know and get involved with emerging technologies." If you work in any industry which is set to be impacted by the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) or augmented reality (AR), you might have overheard this in your office. Or how about this? "Technology subjects are relevant to my colleagues in the innovation team or to my friends who work in tech companies. I'm not a techie – I am a marketer."
Sound familiar? This is not only because of silos, but mainly because of traditional mindsets about roles. In recent months, while working both as an educator on IoT business subjects and as an IoT business specialist, I met several business professionals who did not have tech backgrounds or any relation to IoT and other technologies. What I found was fascinating. Many business professionals feel that technology understanding is not part of their role or responsibility, but something that only their company's IT/innovation department and tech vendors should care about. For IoT, 5G, AI, blockchain, and AR/VR in particular, they sound to some like nice buzzwords of the future, but mainly useful for the tech professionals.
I had this impression, but now it is confirmed. Anyway, why should they care? Someone may think that those are not relevant to their job or industry if they work, for example, in construction, FMCG, or retail. But is this the right mindset for an individual to improve personally and for a company to grow?
On the other hand, the technology professionals are overexcited about the possibilities of these technologies and they are trying to do trials and proof of concepts with their favourite technology. They enjoy evangelising all the great characteristics and capabilities of IoT, AI and more, but without thinking too much about the main problems of their company and clients.
It seems that in many cases these two different types of personalities or professionals do not communicate or collaborate enough when it comes to new technologies and innovation. It is like two different worlds in one organisation. As a result, in many cases there is a big knowledge and communication gap in each organisation; either this is a tech provider company or a tech adopter.
Recently I was privileged enough to create and deliver a full teaching course for the International MBA of IE Business School focusing on the Internet of Things and on transforming business with IoT technology. My students were business professionals with different backgrounds and, on average, five years of experience. They chose this elective course during their MBA out of curiosity and because they wanted to learn what IoT is, where it can be used, and how it will impact their career.
This is exactly the mindset that every professional needs to have; curiosity and learning desire are required for transforming a professional and for full-scale business transformation. Heather McGowan, the #1 global voice for education on LinkedIn in 2017, has also explained that the future of work is learning and the companies who achieve scalable learning to create digital assets will be the winners.
It was really rewarding and inspiring to see my students after some sessions come back to me with ideas of how they can solve problems in their organisations using IoT. There was a clear change of mindset; from initially thinking that IoT was not something relevant to them to at the end of the course being sure that IoT could help them to solve some important business challenges within their area of expertise. What's more, at the end it was clear to them too that their skills can add great value in IoT projects, even if they are not technical. For example, my students came back with ideas about new FMCG products that can increase customer engagement, ideas about optimising the pharma logistics in their company or even how to do asset monitoring and predictive maintenance for expensive and heavy equipment in order to increase efficiency and uptime.
Each student was fortunate to participate in my IoT elective course, plus in many other technology courses that IE Business School provides so they can now help any organisation adopt innovation where appropriate. But what about the other professionals who haven't gone back to school and who are busy with their everyday work? How can companies and employees bridge the communication and knowledge gap in order to make business people get closer to emerging technologies, collaborate with the tech professionals, and collectively create real value for their market and their organisations?
Seeing this gap in the market, I wanted to summarise my insights and recommendations to companies that are thinking – or should be thinking – about adopting IoT-enabled solutions and other technologies, but also to companies that are selling these kind of solutions:
Business professionals need to know what emerging technologies can do and what kind of problems they can solve
If an employee – or even the CEO – does not have a good understanding of what each technology can achieve, what the challenges are (security/privacy) and what is available in the market, then he or she might fail to think differently to approve good proposals, but also undervalue the challenges that need to be considered.
For example, IoT could definitely help a marketer with data insights, customer engagement and sales. What if the marketer doesn't care about technology and believes this is impossible or too expensive? What if the marketer doesn't care later about security or privacy? Saying this, it is promising to see in the Mercer Talent Trends 2019 report that learning about technology is one of the top two skills that employees believe would help them stay competitive.
Employees need to invest time and effort to keep up to date with technology trends, new technologies and their applications
It is the responsibility of every professional who respects his or her career and job to spend some time every week reading and sometimes attending events or workshops where these subjects are discussed. Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, once stated that "people who don't spend five hours a week online learning will make themselves obsolete." It is good to see that some top tier business schools, such as IE in Madrid, have created tech labs during the MBA program, giving students the opportunity to get exposure to new technologies, and interact with industry experts and work on real tech projects.
Of course, the employers need to invest in training their employees, but this is not enough. We as employees need to take responsibility on our training too.
Business executives need to drive the IoT conversation and then ask support from their tech colleagues
Usually, business employees know the business problems and they do not care so much about the technology. This approach which focuses on the problem is very useful; that is why the business professionals need to drive the conversation and collaborate with the technical or innovation departments to identify and implement the right solutions. Moreover, having a business oriented person to lead, for example, the development of a new IoT offering, means we can expect to see in the market more simple, plug and play products; offerings which can be used easily by non-tech people and smaller technical teams.
Technical people need to understand the basics of business principles and be able to think if their ideas solve important pain points that someone would pay for
We all have friends or colleagues who are amazing engineers, full of passion about innovation – but sometimes they do not think if what they want to build for clients is interesting and, more importantly, something they would pay for.
Training engineers to understand marketing, business models, market analysis and sales around IoT technologies they focus on can help companies save time and resources.
Subsequent collaboration with business departments will also become much easier and faster.
Tech companies desperately need business people without tech industry experience
We have noticed many marketing campaigns or salespeople to focus only on buzzwords and technical characteristics, complicating language and processes. This is not the best way to sell new technologies. IoT or tech companies need more and more people with commercial acumen and marketing thinking in order to understand their customers, build simple propositions, communicate their products' benefits and speak the language of their vertical focus. Microsoft is a good example of a company that hires employees with industry experience instead of technology.
Diversity of skills and industries is key for a successful IoT team
There is a need for many different skills, experience and backgrounds, especially in IoT-related teams. Developing an IoT product is technically very complicated as you need to combine software, hardware, and connectivity. The selling is very challenging too.
Business and tech people with very diverse backgrounds can help their companies overcome the issues as they can transfer insights and practices from different industries and roles to the current IoT project. MBA graduates, who have often worked in more than two industries and functions, are usually well positioned for this kind of team as they can bring their appetite for change, but also their diverse experience.
Acquire these key attitudes to be a successful IoT team member
These are four key attitudes for successful team members who are going to develop, use, or sell IoT or other technologies. Collaboration – no-one can know everything or it may take ages to build something yourself. Desire to learn – either through corporate training or just in their free time. Attitude of problem solving – the IoT journey is not easy and there will always be problems and barriers to success. People with problem solving skills and attitude can really help teams move faster, keep motivation high and at the end achieve the team goals. Mercer in its recent report recognised problem solving as one of the essential power skills. Simple language – an IoT team to succeed needs people who can talk precisely – without lots of buzzwords – use language that everyone can understand – not very techy, not very business – and speak with the terms of the industry the team is focusing on.
Important methods to create the IoT knowledge base and inspire employees
Workshops and masterclasses about IoT and IoT business can definitely benefit both business and technical employees. The focus can initially be the teaching and inspiration about IoT, but later also an ideation and problem finding workshop about how IoT and other technologies can be used on the already identified problems within the organisation. Business executives especially will feel more confident about their ideas and suggestions, and they will be able to connect the dots easily.
Another way to create knowledge and inspiration is through going to events, such as Internet of Manufacturing, IoT Tech Expo and more, where employees can hear use cases and challenges and meet like-minded professionals. Both methods are also advised by the World Economic Forum which suggests them as one of the pathways to radically reskill employees, promoting on-the-job training opportunities and maximising informal learning.
An additional internal measure would be to create innovation or tech champions who will try to motivate, educate and help their colleagues learn and get comfortable with the changes happening in their industry. Of course, these championers need to get rewarded for their enthusiasm, time and commitment to grow themselves and help others grow as well.
We need to think of technology as a toolkit of possible problem solving methodologies. In order for an individual, a team or a company to be able to use these available tools, they need first to understand its benefits and its limitations, then need to be able to collaborate and speak about these with other colleagues and identify the best use cases. In addition to training and motivating the existing employees, bringing in business professionals who combine good knowledge of the new technologies and a diverse business background can make a big difference in roles such as propositions, partnerships, marketing, strategy, business development, and of course sales.
Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this? Attend the IoT Tech Expo World Series events with upcoming shows in Silicon Valley, London, and Amsterdam.