Collaboration is the key to IoT

A multidisciplinary team will help understand the customer psyche and solve problems


An understanding of different domains will help teams appreciate and respect the perspective of team members from other disciplines. Photo: iStock
An understanding of different domains will help teams appreciate and respect the perspective of team members from other disciplines. Photo: iStock

Imagine a container in your kitchen that will warn you when the stock of sugar has fallen dangerously low, and even reorder when necessary. We have all experienced smart light systems which switch off when they detect no motion in the room. Attach a stick-on tag to your key chain and get an instant alert and a chirp, beep or bleat from the errant object revealing its location from just about anywhere on earth should you leave it behind. These items are Internet of Things (IoT) devices, equipped with RFID (radio frequency identification) sensors and an IP address.

Neil Gross, a professor of sociology and author of several books on sociological and political topics, predicted in 1999 that “in the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations”. Research agency Gartner quantified this in its report, estimating that there will be 21 billion IoT devices by 2020.

No wonder there is so much buzz about the IoT.

As organizations race against time to win a share of this IoT pie, it is interesting to understand the nature of the marathon. “Each successful organization in the IoT space goes through three stages,” says Arvind Tiwary, IoT evangelist and technopreneur, chair of the IoT forum at the non-profit entrepreneur network TiE and founder of SangEnnovate. “The first stage is ideation to prototype. The second stage is taking the prototype to the customer, a testing of the market. And the third, of course, is scaling up the business.”

Each of these three stages requires distinct human capabilities and therefore poses concomitant human capital challenges.

In the first phase, that is ideation to prototype, the focus is on sharply defining the customer need that the product aims to address, and then designing the product accordingly. In this stage, the business requires multidisciplinary teams with complementarity of skills. Product engineers who bring in hardware capabilities; software professionals who program, design algorithms, handle big data, analytics and modelling; marketing professionals who understand product marketing and channel management; behavioural experts—anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and even neurologists—who can decode consumer behaviour.

The creation of such multidisciplinary teams is definitely an HR challenge. But it is only the first step. The important thing is that such teams need to perform. And perform they will only when the culture is collaborative, and the mindset innovative. This will not happen by serendipity.

Let’s take the case of collaboration. For teams to be collaborative, it is important that team members have, apart from deep domain knowledge, a broad understanding of other domains. This breadth of knowledge will help them appreciate and respect the perspective of team members from other disciplines. And it is essentially this respect that will foster a collaborative culture.

Similarly, to be innovative, you need individuals who are strong in associative thinking, who have the ability to simplify data, standardize it and connect the dots, and transpose observations across different domains; essentially information curators with the ability to explain ideas or concepts effectively using a variety of means. Given the high failure rates in the ideation to prototype space, you need employees who are persevering, like King Bruce’s proverbial spider, and while having a strong bias for action, also have the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. Sounds like we are talking about Superwomen? Well, that’s the HR challenge, to identify such talent, get them on board and enable an empowering culture in the organization that helps them perform.

Let’s move now to the next phase in organizational evolution—the prototype to the customer stage. The most critical competence in this period is understanding and responding swiftly to customer requirements and complaints even if the solution at hand is not the perfect one. And for this, employees must feel comfortable working in perpetual beta mode, relishing the ability to continually refine the product solution even while in flight.

Competition and competitors can now come from just about anywhere. Think hotels, think Airbnb. And because of this, employees and organizations should have the ability to constantly scan the environment, have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and adapt.

Those familiar with the IoT space are also quick to cite the need for organizations to tap into the inherent intuitive knowledge and skills of the multidisciplinary teams at work to understand the customer psyche and solve problems; far better than the traditional consultant or even the funding venture capitalist.

And finally the third phase. In this stage, as organizations taste success with their prototype, start to scale, start to grow, all the traditional growth challenges kick in—how to manage scale, manage execution, and manage risks. These organizational challenges spin off their own HR challenges. But that’s an old story and one that most of us are familiar with, isn’t it?

Marc Russell Benioff , the American Internet entrepreneur, philanthropist, founder, chairman and CEO of Salesforce and author of Behind The Cloud, said, “As we talk about devices, you should never forget that behind every one there is a person—a customer. It’s not the Internet of Things, but the Internet of People—of customers...”

Not just customers, I daresay, but employees too. And the HR challenge is to understand, bring on board and enable these employees to deliver the Internet of Things.

Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.

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