Networking: Back To The Future

Presenting in Noordwijk

Because I don’t always wear running clothes… Click on the photo to download your free copy of the Harvard Business Review article on “How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Companies”

As anyone with an Internet connection will know, last week saw “Back To The Future Day”. October 21 was the day to which, some thirty years prior, young Marty McFly and the erstwhile Doc Brown had traveled. In the second installment of a series that captured the imagination of many a mid-80s child, teenager and adult, the scriptwriters guessed some developments and overlooked others. In particular, that same Internet that the film took over on October 21 never got mentioned. And yet the first ever e-mail was sent as far back as 1971…

Everybody’s talking about our 24/7 connected, ever-shrinking world. We network online in a way that Doc Brown couldn’t even dream of. Because epilepsy means I cannot drive, I’m as ‘guilty’ as anyone: LinkedIn, Twitter… I’m there. A happily married man (least so my wife tells me), I’m even one of those who got lucky with online dating.

That said, the digital world is not our natural habitat. It’s a source of information and an enabler of productivity, but it’s not where Maslow would expect ups to climb his pyramid. And I got a timely reminder of this the day after “Back To The Future Day”.

I was on the North Sea coast in Noordwijk for the “Aftermarket Business Platform” conference. Having worked with its organisers for nine years, back in June they told me they were thinking of offering delegates a pre-breakfast “Jogging Club” option. As someone who runs every day, I was interested not just in participating but, indeed, in leading it. Having run in Noordwijk at the time of the previous event, I knew a couple of routes that lend themselves to a group of varied abilities as we’d pass the hotel several times should anyone wish to jump off the bus… why not?

Day 1: getting ready to explore Noordwijk!

Day 1: ready to explore Noordwijk!

At a time when keeping up to speed with technology and its implications can be overwhelming, running offers a welcome distraction. It’s the simplest sport out there. Yes, we can overcomplicate it: I know, because I often do. Every day I go for a run wearing a GPS watch and a heart-rate monitor, allowing me to monitor my progress and analyse a plethora of stats once I’m back. I often get myself to sleep by thinking about my upcoming runs, what kind of runs I should be doing ahead of races, what I should and should not be eating… a lot of thought can go into what, ultimately, is all about putting one foot in front of the other.

But last week’s two morning runs in Noordwijk were truly refreshing – and not just courtesy of the howling North Sea wind that accompanied us along the sand dunes. As we stepped out into the 6:45 darkness, we were not Marketing Managers, Service Directors, General Directors and so on: we were runners. We shared a common interest and made friendly conversation along the way, talking about triathlons, injuries, marathons, ultras and many of the other topics that runners cover on club runs. The only difference was that we were not a permanent club: we were the Copperberg Jogging Club, taking over Noordwijk for two mornings, running past bemused locals unaccustomed to a dozen runners together, before going our separate ways at the end of the conference. And a very good conference it was, by the way.

As a Marketing Manager for a software company, I would dearly have loved to use this 45’ slot to promote the benefits of a connected service strategy. But that wasn’t what people who’d got out of bed before 6:30am wanted to hear any more than those who might have been in the hotel bar just a few hours earlier. We wanted to talk running, share what it was that had made us the sort of people who get out of bed before dawn and lace up… it was old-skool networking. The sort of networking in which you build relationships rather than hold up a loudspeaker. The sort of networking in which the digital world doesn’t always afford you the time to engage. But then this, whilst over twenty miles short of a marathon, was definitely not a sprint.

I took some mid-run photos and e-mailed them to my fellow runners. I got responses thanking me “for taking the wonderful initiative, it made a difference” and for the “great experience in Noordwijk, specifically the morning run”. During the runs I’d already established that at least one person generally packs their running shoes but rarely wears them and goes for a solo run, whereas being part of a group ensured he did.

Group Running

The Copperberg Jogging Club’s second outing… not quite as busy as day 1!

Since I generally run early in the morning (earlier than I did in Noordwijk…), I rarely get to enjoy this sort of camaraderie. Thirty-six hours after getting home, I was lining up for a marathon: I ran the first seventeen miles with a friend, which was far more enjoyable than the nine solo miles that followed, and shortly after crossing the line two runners approached me separately to thank me for pacing them. I didn’t know either of them, but, as they struggled, they kept up with me and eventually hit their target time. Hearing that, just like hearing comments earlier in the week, was a great feeling: in many ways, better than crossing the finishing line. Running may fundamentally be a solo activity, but it lends itself beautifully to socialising.

Someone in my organisation may well ask me if leading a Jogging Club delivered any leads. And I would have to say no. But it didn’t cost anything but time, and it has enabled the formation of relationships which mean that maybe, just maybe, when there is a fit between what we offer and what those runners need they may think about us. For now, I’ve taken some of those relationships from the physical to the digital, from the Noordwijk seafront to LinkedIn. In a world in which the divide between the digital and physical is increasingly blurred, that was the logical next step.

And that’s what it’s all about: one step in front of the other…


The Internet Of Getting Stuff Done

Right - so where does the bit that talks to my shirt go? © sorrentinacoffee - used by permission

Right – so where does the bit that talks to my shirt go?
© sorrentinacoffee – used by permission

It’s here. It’s been around a while, but now it’s about to change the way we do things. Forever.

No, not a blockbuster trailer: a one-liner for the Internet Of Things (‘IoT’). As way of introduction to the latest cool TLA, some stats, courtesy of a recent post by Ailbhe Coughlan:

  • Gartner estimates that by 2020 some 26 billion smart connected products (‘SCPs’) will be in service (3.3/person) – and that’s in addition to around 7.3bn smartphones and tablets
  • The McKinsey Global Institute calculates that the IoT business will be worth $6.2 trillion by 2025, with an impact on the global manufacturing community of $2.3 trillion

So what? What does this mean to you and me? Let’s step out of the office for a while and look at this from a user’s perspective. It’s all well and good things talking to each other: I’m delighted for them, I really am. But how is them talking to each other going to help me and you get stuff done?

Similar questions were raised when people started putting e- in front of everyday activities, from commerce to learning – starting with mail, of course. Curiosity was often mistaken for opportunity and venture capitalists all over mourned the (expensive) crash of Web 1.0. As some rejoiced at having kept the faith with bricks and mortar, others went back to the drawing board and found a way of making the Web work for providers, investors and consumers alike. That was the game-changer.

Like the Web, the IoT is no overnight sensation. The acronym dates back to 1999, the concept’s at least eight years older. That’s right: IoT is last millennium stuff! But now, having learnt to crawl, it’s about to walk the walk. And run.

I’m a runner. Not possessing any special talent, to make the most of my abilities I analyse stats on sites such as Garmin and Strava. I run wearing a GPS watch and a Heart-Rate Monitor, fairly common tools that however were not readily available until recently. What’s next ? How long before clothing provides us with real-time intel about our activities?
No need to wait: that technology is already here. It could be as ubiquitous as GPS before the decade’s out.

Our imagination and creativity are the greatest barriers to the growth of the IoT. Is there any reason why, as I approach home, a smart running top cannot tell my coffee machine to get a cappuccino ready? Or have the boiler ensure the house is warm? Other than the fact that I don’t own a coffee machine, none whatsoever.

As soon as I get in from my morning run, I take my meds. It’s routine. But sometimes routines get derailed by children getting ready for school and I may only realise a few hours later that I never did take those pills. It may only happen twice a year, but potentially that could be two times too many. Now, if only my jar notified me… and maybe prompted a prescription request when I’m close to running low…

Again, that future is here. I, for one, always keep adequate stock and can easily go online and request a top-up via my local pharmacy. But there are people for whom this represents a challenge: people whom the IoT can help. Moreover, technology can not only check that we’ve taken our meds, but also measure their impact. Ponder that for a second.

Because the IoT is not just about home comforts. It’s about improving people’s lives. And, in the commercial area, in that office we just stepped out of, it’s about creating advantage for your business and improving the bottom line. It means serious business, not just coffee.

In machinery and transportation, for example, the IoT can enable higher equipment uptime by sensing imminent failures and prompting pre-emptive, rather than reactive, repairs. That also means that revenue-generating equipment, be it a truck, a digger or an aeroplane, isn’t unnecessarily stuck in a repair facility whence it cannot turn kilometres into revenue just because of how long it’s been since it was last there. That will drive revenue and customer loyalty for all to see, engendering a virtuous circle, whilst behind the scenes, as per McKinsey’s discussions with Bosch executives, manufacturing gets even leaner and cuts away at costs. It’s set to create a perfect storm for profitability – are you ready?

For many, the car bridges the gap between private and work time. Imagine if, when we’re running late for a meeting or for our kids’ swimming class, it advised us as to the best location for parking? Or if we could retrieve a stolen car the way we already can an iPhone? Most people will go through life without having their vehicle stolen: but they’ll still pay for the possibility in their insurance premiums… Indeed, it’s hard to reward drivers for good habits that reduce the likelihood of payouts. But Usage-Based Insurance is already gaining momentum: and the IoT can further smoothen its path ahead.

If it sounds grandiose to state that “the Internet of Things will change the world forever”, rewind to an offline world. Take out of the equation e-mails, e-commerce, online banking, social media… does how you go about getting stuff done look the same as now? Or have things got easier?

Some of the permutations of the IoT can raise concerns. Could SCPs take over?
Web 2.0 proves that we can be smart and in control. Powered by knowledge, retailers are getting ever smarter at marketing additional products and services to us as individuals. But they’re still not shipping them and billing us for them automatically! As long as we retain the final word before commitments are made, IoT will be a friend. I will just have to resist some of the promotions for running shoes that I get when retailers find out I’ve run 500 kilometres in my current pair… which should be doable, since I got over 2,000km out of my last one!

As with any technology, the IoT is neither inherently good nor bad. But its potential is mind-blowing: now it is up to us, the users, to adopt it in a beneficial and constructive way. In doing so, we must address privacy concerns (assuming Millennials understand what privacy is – and research shows they do) and not burn bridges with those who can’t get connected.

The football World Cup kicks off soon. In my younger days, I’d have spent the past few weeks collecting Panini stickers and swapping them with my friends. Now, imagine if sticker books could tell children when they’re only twenty stickers away from completing their collection and which stickers they need…

…no, that’s going too far. Besides, kids don’t need technology to know that. And the lazier ones might then set the book to automatically order those last stickers required – that wouldn’t be ‘progress’! That would be ‘cheating’!

If you are a football aficionado, enjoy the World Cup. Maybe in four years’ time your fridge will tell you when you’re running low on beer, even order it for you… or your phone will order a pizza exactly 45’ before your team’s match begins… But then maybe football’s not your thing, and you’ll be drawing up a list of alternatives, seeing which of your friends are in your area at that time, of tailored promotions from restaurants that are not showing the match…

But I still wouldn’t rely on technology helping your team win a penalty shoot-out. Stephen Hawking, a famous British physicist, is trying. But even he can’t prevent human error. Technology is only ever an enabler, not the solution. We’re still in charge. Which is not good news if, like me, you’re an England fan.

If like me, however, you’re also a fan of technology, improving business processes, bringing together design, manufacturing and service… then the IoT is great news. So let your imagination run free: then step back into your office and start making the IoT work for your business.