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How IoT Is Making Workplaces More Efficient

Analytics and automation deliver valuable capabilities, but organizations must pull technologies together securely.

Anyone can be an early adopter. 

Internet of Things (IoT) technologies — which have been discussed for years as the next revolution in IT — are finally widely available in the marketplace. Sensors can be deployed almost anywhere to track just about anything, potentially providing organizations with mountains of data. 

But while any organization can implement IoT solutions, it takes a thoughtful strategy to create value for the enterprise. 

“IoT is all around us,” says Steven Darrah, director of national solution services at Intel. “It’s not about IoT. It’s about what can you do with it?”

“The data set on its own is not as valuable as the data set when you combine it with other things,” says Brian Self, security solution architect at CDW. “I think that’s the value of IoT.” 

Rather than engaging in IoT projects for their own sake, enterprises are searching for the right mix of technologies to collect and analyze the data they need for specific, value-enhancing use cases. Across sectors, organizations are streamlining inventory, enhancing customer service and optimizing efficiency by tapping into new sources of data. It’s not enough just to be early, or just to be strategic. Organizations that want to lead the way need to be both. 

“If you wait five years, you’re going to be too late,” says Link Simpson, IoT practice lead for CDW. “Start now, pull in a partner organization that has experience in IoT and put a plan together. What do you need to put in place? How do you break that down into projects, and how do you sequence those projects so you see the biggest benefit, the biggest value early on? There are real benefits that can be accomplished today, but you really need a well-thought-out plan.”

Countless Use Cases

Already, IoT technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are being used to track inventory in retail, which helps to prevent loss and optimize logistics. In healthcare, senior-living facilities and nursing homes are using wearable devices to track data on things such as movement and sleep, as well as risk factors for major health events like heart attacks and strokes. Wearable devices can also be used by energy companies and other organizations to track workers in the case of disasters or other emergencies. In the business world, companies can combine occupancy sensors, wearable devices and calendar software to keep track of employees and meeting spaces. 

“Knowing that somebody is three offices down, and being able to go and join that meeting, significantly changes the way that we work in that environment,” says Simpson. “It simplifies our lives dramatically, and it saves money.” 

In entertainment, Disney World supplies guests with “MagicBands” — RFID-equipped bracelets that enable visitors to unlock their resort hotel rooms and buy food and merchandise. In sports, teams and leagues are using wearables to track player data, potentially helping to prevent injuries — a huge benefit in an industry where top athletes receive fully guaranteed ten-figure contracts. 

In all likelihood, the IoT use cases that will create the greatest value for organizations a decade from now either haven’t been conceived of yet or are still in their infancy. (For perspective: When the iPhone first came to market in 2007, analysts didn’t talk about how users would one day use the devices to hail rideshare services.) But the organizations that create real value with IoT today will be the ones best positioned for tomorrow. 

28 billion

The total number of devices that will be connected to the internet by 2021, including nearly 16 billion IoT devices

Source: Ericsson, “Ericsson Mobility Report: On the Pulse of the Networked Society,” June 2016

Three Steps to IoT Security

New connections create new risks. Many organizations have struggled to open their networks to mobile devices and sensors without creating new vulnerabilities. 

Experts suggest three steps to help organizations maximize IoT benefits while minimizing risk. 

  1. Go back to basics: “A lot of these devices are coming with default passwords that haven’t been changed,” says Brian Self, security solution architect at CDW. This sort of carelessness occurs even within large organizations tasked with protecting valuable assets. For example, pranksters have attacked unprotected state highway message boards, changing them to warn motorists of zombie invasions. 
  2. Segment networks: IoT devices should be kept separate from sensitive data. “If you can segment these devices off, it’s not as big a deal if an attacker gets access to that network, because it’s just that device,” says Steven Darrah, director of national solution services at Intel. “You’re lowering your risk.” 
  3. Think backward: It’s natural to worry that IoT devices in the field will tempt hackers to use these new connection points to gain access to an organization’s network. But it’s also possible that attackers will first gain network access, and then seek control of IoT devices. By beefing up standard cybersecurity solutions, such as firewalls and anti-malware tools, organizations will also protect their IoT deployments.

The Underlying IT

As organizations learned with their mobility deployments over the past decade, devices are just the beginning. For an IoT initiative to truly transform an organization, IT leaders must also invest in an array of supporting technologies. An IoT deployment might include RFID tags and readers, real-time location systems, smartphones, sensors, IP-enabled video cameras with special features such as facial recognition, robust Wi-Fi infrastructure, and other networking and connectivity upgrades, as well as smart versions of everyday devices such as printers, elevators and lighting. 

“There are certain core technologies that are central to what we’re doing,” says Simpson. “In general, it’s basically networking. You’re going to take all these disparate systems that are out there, and you’re going to figure out how you translate them and interface them to an IP network. Pervasive Wi-Fi is going to be a big one.”

Boiled down to the basics, an IoT deployment requires organizations to invest in objects that collect data, networking solutions that transport the data for processing and analytics tools that create value from the data. Much of this can be achieved by repurposing existing technologies. 

“If you think about it, the most powerful sensor we have is a camera, because it’s capturing so much information,” says Simpson. “Everything from license plate recognition to facial recognition, recognizing abandoned packages in a very crowded room, those analytics are all there.”

Automation and Analytics

Collecting data is only the first step in creating value from an IoT deployment. “IoT is really transitioning from being about the sensors,” Simpson says. “Organizations need to look at analytics and consider what they’ll do with the data that’s coming in. Now that you have that new information, how do you make better business decisions? That’s the next step.” 

Darrah points out that large retailers such as Walmart typically have around 200 cameras in an average store. These represent a fleet of widely deployed sensors, as video cameras collect an extraordinary amount of information. But if this data isn’t being stored, processed and analyzed effectively, it can’t do much good. 

“What could you do with all that camera data if you were able to analyze it?” Darrah asks. “One of the things [the retail industry] looked at was, ‘Could I determine what products were missing on the shelf?’” Data from cameras can also be used to analyze foot traffic patterns, alert management of suspicious activity or emergencies, and even determine the attitudes of shoppers, which can help stores to improve customer service. 

In the end, “smart” systems are only as smart as the people deploying them. If an organization doesn’t know what its goals are for an IoT deployment, and doesn’t invest in analytics and automation tools to achieve those goals, then IoT will result in little more than a lot of extra data to manage. 

Darrah tells the story of shopping at a store where he received assistance from an associate wielding a tablet. When the time came for Darrah to make his purchase, the associate walked to a stationary point-of-sale system, printed a 16-digit code and then spent several minutes attempting to key the code accurately into the tablet. 

It wasn’t immediately clear what the retailer hoped to achieve with this process, but, Darrah says, it was apparent to him why the store was “almost out of business.” 

“It’s really simple,” Darrah says. “Anytime somebody embarks on an IoT initiative, and it's going to impact employees, organizations have to think about efficiency, greater revenue and improved safety. Those are three of the big benefits in the workplace.” 

“IoT shouldn’t detract from employees’ or customers’ experience,” he continues. “It needs to be an additive.”

Data from cameras can also be used to analyze foot traffic patterns, alert management of suspicious activity or emergencies, and even determine the attitudes of shoppers.

Smarter Buildings, Smaller Buildings

Through occupancy sensors and connected systems such as heating and air conditioning or lighting, organizations are controlling their utility costs and reducing their carbon footprints — an important consideration at a time when many organizations publish data on energy and water consumption in corporate social responsibility reports. 

But IoT technologies also have the potential to radically change — and shrink — the spaces where organizations reside. 

“In the average office building, probably less than 50 percent of the space is utilized at any point in time,” says Link Simpson, IoT practice lead for CDW. “What if you were able to reduce the footprint of a building by 30 or 40 percent? That’s a huge, huge savings for the business.”

The reason most companies don’t do this, Simpson says, is because they don’t want to hamper the worker experience. In a hoteling or shared-cubicle workspace model, users often have to reserve space ahead of time, creating potential conflicts and logistical hurdles. 

But IoT technologies can track who is in the office and which spaces are available, preventing the need for a complex, manual system.  

“If the building is able to tell how many people are there, you can go to an automatic, reservationless system,” Simpson says. “When you walk in the building, you’re told which office is available, and you’re immediately able to get to work.” 

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