A Very Big Thing:
The Internet of Things

By Steve Hendershot

26 billion devices will feed data by 2020. The project impact will be huge.

PM Network November 2014

Imagine a network of billions of sensors and instruments monitoring the performance of devices everywhere, from factory machinery to home appliances. The idea of this hyperconnected network—now known as the “Internet of Things” (IoT)—has been around since the 1990s, when futurists began to speculate about smart refrigerators that could alert their owners when they were out of milk and manufacturing equipment that could signal an issue long before a production-halting problem.

Today that idea is surging forward, thanks to advances in sensor technology, big data collection, storage and analysis, and high-speed Internet connectivity. From production processes to potential new products, the implications for organizations— and the project managers guiding strategic goals into reality—are enormous.

The IoT future is primarily about measurement: the ability to measure with previously impossible certainty, empiricism and organization, and to instantly relay and analyze those measurements. The ascendance of the IoT has already begun to transform the global economy. By 2020, the IoT will consist of 26 billion sensors, instruments and other connected devices, according to research firm Gartner. That staggering number doesn’t even include gadgets such as smartphones, tablets and PCs. Another research firm, International Data Corp., estimates that global annual revenue from IoT solutions will grow from US$1.9 trillion in 2013 to US$7.1 trillion in 2020.

“The value and opportunity within the IoT is its data. It will allow a level of knowledge that we’ve never had before about the systems underlying every part of the economy, and create the opportunity to leverage that knowledge,” says Christian Légaré, executive vice president and chief technology officer, Micrium Inc., Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Micrium develops and markets embedded software, including a product that helps power NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover.

Earthbound IoT devices range from household gadgets to industrial sensors that can track every aspect of a complex system’s performance. Relatively well-known consumer gadgets such as the Nest smart thermostat and the Fitbit fitness trackers are “just the tip of the iceberg,” says Mr. Légaré. “It’s what isn’t visible to consumers—industrial controls, plant automation, all the sensors in walls and ceilings or hanging somewhere—this is where the bulk of IoT products and benefits will be deployed.”

That deployment will dramatically increase productivity, says Jeremiah Stone, chief technology officer—software, energy management division of General Electric (GE), a PMI Global Executive Council member. “We anticipate massive increases not seen since the Industrial Revolution,” says Mr. Stone, San Roman, California, USA. “We’ll have the ability to help our assets and machines be more intelligent, and learn more empirically from our business processes so we can better automate those processes.”

A Data-Rich Future

Sensors are the foot soldiers of the Internet of Things. They are the data collectors whose readings fuel the IoT—the digital, Internet-connected equivalent of a technician in a lab coat, wandering the factory floor, reading dials and scribbling notes onto a clipboard.

IoT sensors don’t merely replace traditional instruments and recording methods, however. By making more things measurable and analyzable, they also open new project possibilities. As such, the onset of the IoT will set in motion a massive wave of projects in the coming years, as organizations ranging from startups to multinational conglomerates race to take advantage of its potential. Project managers should prepare for an enormous influx of data that will change the nature of their work—and hold immense promise.

"The value and opportunity within the IoT is its data. It will allow a level of knowledge that we've never had before about the systems underlying every part of the economy, and create the opportunity to leverage that knowledge."
— Christian Légaré, Micrium Inc., Montreal, Quebec, Canada

“For a project manager or product manager, the impact of the IoT is similar to the advent of the touch screen,” says Pete St. Pierre, president of the nonprofit IoT industry group IPSO Alliance and IoT product manager for PMI Global Executive Council member Oracle Corp., Redwood, California, USA. “It’s a tool to make whatever you’re producing better, in this case through the acquisition of additional data that can make your product smarter or more interactive or aware. Over time, it will become a tool that people will take for granted; it will just be there, invisible, because people will expect it.”

Ultimately, nearly every business process will be supported by machine intelligence transmitted through the IoT, and nearly every project will rely on fresh operational data, Mr. Stone says. “For project managers working at the intersection of operational technology and IT, this is already material.”

Interoperability: the IoT’s Holy Grail

For the IoT to reach its global potential, however, interoperability is essential. The data gathered by one company’s sensors need to be stored in a way that is comprehensible to another company’s analytics tools. If IoT protocols instead become a mishmash of proprietary soup, and the process of gleaning insights across different IoT platforms recalls the frustration of opening a Macintosh file on a Windows PC in the 1990s—well, IoT’s future will be limited.

Nearly every organization realizes this and—at a conceptual level—espouses the widespread adoption of universal IoT standards. Resistance arises, though, when a company realizes it will have to shed its existing standards and systems to comply with an emerging standard.

The solution is to emphasize how much is possible with just a little effort, says Pauli Kuosmanen, chief technology officer of Digile, a nonprofit company based in Espoo, Finland that’s dedicated to building IoT collaborations among Finnish companies. “The problem is not the technology, it’s the mental attitude. You have to remind people that if they cross the borders of their silos, they will be rewarded” through the IoT, Mr. Kuosmanen says.

Global standards organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) are developing IoT standards aimed at consensus interoperability. In July, a group of experts convened by IEEE met in Munich, Germany to begin developing new IoT standards. The group’s leaders know the project is daunting.

“The great challenge regarding the IoT is that it is vast,” says Mary Lynne Nielsen, technology initiatives director, IEEE, Piscataway, New Jersey, USA. “It encompasses so many different businesses and technologies that we currently think of as relatively discrete. We’re asking these technologies to start interacting with one another in ways that people probably didn’t envision 10 years ago.”

Investing in the Industrial Internet

In fact, many machines that could become connected to the IoT are so old they predate the Internet. It’s a substantial hurdle in the way of the development of the Industrial Internet, a subset of the IoT focused on industrial processes.

In 2012, GE pledged to invest US$1 billion in IoT initiatives by 2015. The global organization’s IoT projects range from hospital robots that can sort and sterilize tools to predictive software that helps offshore oil and gas operations minimize downtime to power-plant systems that regulate and optimize performance based on instant analysis of grid conditions and power demands.

"The problem is not the technology, it’s the mental attitude. You have to remind people that if they cross the borders of their silos, they will be rewarded" through the IoT."
— Pauli Kuosmanen, Digile, Espoo, Finland

Part of GE’s portfolio investment includes hiring a fleet of IoT-focused software engineers. One of them is Mr. Stone, who was hired away from software giant SAP in February. Since then he has learned that the upgrade cycle for industrial machinery is different from that of a software product.

“Industrial equipment tends to be long-lived. I’ve seen transformers recently that were installed in the 1970s—it’s not like the six-month cycle for cellphones,” Mr. Stone says. “That’s why it’s crucial to set canonical standards that will enable long-term interoperability. This is not a winner-take-all market. We believe there will be many players, which means it’s important to facilitate an open system.”

Practitioners in the IoT Era

Mr. Stone predicts that the role of project and program managers will be enhanced as the IoT grows because their decisions will increasingly be based on an abundance of real-time data. As more manufacturing processes are automated, “We’ll be able to place machine intelligence where it belongs and human intelligence where it belongs,” he says.

Moreover, project managers will be crucial as the IoT era emerges because they have the skills to handle challenges stemming from the promise of a fully interoperable IoT and the realities of existing incompatible systems, Ms. Nielsen says.

“It’s the job of the project manager to preserve as much of the vision as possible, but to do so while addressing the realities and reminding the client or customer of those realities,” she says.

Project managers working on pioneering IoT initiatives are helping to usher in a new economic era. As with anything transformational, the IoT presents challenges—especially to anyone accustomed to old methodologies. It also offers enormous possibilities to anyone wanting to leverage data to work more effectively. And if anyone understands the power of measurement, it’s a project manager.

Multipurpose Sensors

A decade ago, a consumer wanting to learn how many calories were burned during a workout had to turn to a sports scientist. Now a Fitbit band provides that data. Similarly, consider a pacemaker: Confirming that it performed properly once required a doctor’s visit. Now, not only can a doctor monitor the device’s performance remotely, he or she can monitor the heart’s health at the same time.

Connected devices provide clear benefits, yet there’s a problem in the IoT world. Because it is possible to measure and analyze a nearly infinite number of activities, a person is likely to experience IoT fatigue in short order if a separate device is required for each task.

“I’m not convinced that this model where you buy a US$150 device every time you have a need is really scalable, because I don’t believe people will buy a special, expensive device for each one of their needs,” says Rafi Haladjian, co-founder of Sen.se, Saint-Ouen, France and a pioneering IoT entrepreneur.

So for his latest project, Mr. Haladjian set out to build a product with motion sensors designed not just for one specific application but for a variety of IoT tasks. To tackle that challenge, Sen.se spent the last four years developing a device that aims to separate IoT-enabled software from the applicationspecific hardware gadgets that typically house them. The idea is that, depending on the consumer’s preference, the same product can be trained to function as a fitness tracker, a device to monitor sleep quality or a tool to adjust a home thermostat.

The technology was available, so the biggest hurdle was a project-management challenge: overseeing separate hardware and software development teams, along with several application development initiatives designed to run on top of the core software. Everything had to be compatible.

After centralizing project teams and working through multiple iterations, Sen.se built a next-generation product consisting of a central hub, called Mother, and smaller sensors called Motion Cookies. Here’s an example of how it works: To simultaneously track caffeine intake, sleep patterns and daily workouts, sensors are attached to a coffeemaker and mattress, and placed in an exerciser’s pocket. They send data to Mother, which in turn makes customizable information available on a desktop, mobile phone or tablet device. The product hit the market late this year, concluding a four-year adventure in product development and project management. Here’s a look at how Sen.se handled this cuttingedge IoT project.

Building the Platform

Mr. Haladjian, Sen.se co-founder Franck Biehler and their 14-employee team began developing the platform for Mother in 2010. The platform consisted of the server infrastructure and server-level software that would gather data from the different sensors, store that data and then push it to the relevant app for analysis. The company completed the first version in late 2011.

To simultaneously track caffeine intake, sleep patterns and workouts, sensors are attached to a coffeemaker and mattress, and placed in an exerciser’s pocket. The sensors send data to Mother.
Sen.se's central hub, called Mother, and smaller sensors called Motion Cookies.

To enable software engineers outside the company to tinker with the technology and develop applications for Mother and the Motion Cookies, the project team released an open development platform called Open.Sen.se. The effort was a success from a marketing perspective—18,000 people signed up for a chance to experiment—but didn’t yield the sort of innovation Mr. Haladjian had hoped for.

“We found there was a big shortage of imagination when we only provided the tools for creating applications,” he says. The good news was that the company’s strategy became clear: “We knew we had to make applications that solve real problems ourselves, so we made the platform much less open than we had originally intended.”

The project team produced a second version in September 2012, and then a third in March 2013. They worked until every server in the Sen.se infrastructure was capable of accommodating 4,000 sensor readings or other events per second. “That’s why we went through three versions—we needed to get to that kind of performance on the server side,” Mr. Haladjian says.

For the hardware portion of the product, Mr. Haladjian subcontracted the work to a group of engineers. He still oversaw the process, however, including a failed first version of the hub and sensors. “We threw everything away” in July 2011, he says, and reimagined the devices from scratch. There were three more iterations, with the final models completed in September 2013.

Growing a Family of Apps

Then there were the applications themselves. The team developed 14 initial apps, including tools for monitoring medication intake, temperature and sleeping habits. Each one needed to work intuitively and effectively, and became a project of its own. The process began with lunch meetings during which the Sen.se team brainstormed unique things that Mother and her Motion Cookies might be able to achieve. Once an idea received preliminary approval, the team would design a prototype and test it in the company’s offices. Subsequent versions incorporated smarter algorithms based on the earlier tests, ultimately leading to more formal user testing.

To guarantee the finished project would satisfy end users’ needs, the Sen.se team field-tested each application. For example, the team used Facebook to recruit 60 people who volunteered to test a sleep analysis app over two months. “This is not something you can simulate,” Mr. Haladjian explains. “You need real people sleeping real nights in their real bedrooms.”

Through the project’s field tests, the team tweaked the apps in a variety of circumstances that could challenge a motion sensor: two people sleeping in the same bed, for example, or people who sit on their bed to put on their socks.

In Search of Synchronicity

The greatest project management challenge the Sen.se teams faced was how to minimize problems created by the simultaneous development of Mother’s major components: the platform containing the server-side software, the hardware and the apps. The fact that all were evolving simultaneously made it difficult for any team to move forward, because basic choices made by another team would impact everyone by shifting common variables.

In 2012, Mr. Haladjian figured out a simple solution: pull all the teams into the same room. The company had been split among three offices until that point, but once Mr. Haladjian united them in one office in a suburb of Paris, miscommunication and friction immediately diminished.

“If someone made a change, now everybody was aware immediately because that person could just shout the information through the room,” Mr. Haladjian says. “It was the most efficient way to make everybody aware of how all the pieces were moving. After we made that change, things started to move forward.”

Although the project took longer than planned and went over budget due to the unexpected number of iterations required, Mr. Haladjian is happy with the result. Sen.se presented Mother at the January 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, where it received a Best of CES award. The product began shipping to retailers and consumers in July.

Raising the Supply-Chain Standard

Gary Hartley, a Wellington, New Zealand-based general manager with global supply-chain standards organization GS1 New Zealand, knew that the IoT had the potential to transform his country’s livestock industry. The trouble was that no one had conclusively demonstrated the IoT’s viability in that sector.

So he recruited a network of farmers and meat processors in New Zealand, as well as international shipping companies and a distributor with connections to butcher shops in Hamburg, Germany, to demonstrate how, using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology and the IoT, a cut of venison in Hamburg could be traced directly back to a particular deer on a New Zealand farm.

The project’s success depended not only on technology but on creating an industry-wide standard. In order for the cuts of meat to remain traceable from farm to market, they had to be classified according to a consistent, standards-based methodology, rather than the proprietary systems favored by many New Zealand farmers. The central project challenge was building a numerical system that could trace a package of meat on the shelf back to a particular New Zealand deer. Mr. Hartley’s team solved the problem by developing a network of parent/ child RFID codes.

Once the new system was in place, people understood the project’s value, Mr. Hartley says: Scan a number and the IoT will give you the whole chain of custody using a GS1 standard. “That’s when people say, ‘Ah! I get it.’ They see the relationship between the individual cartons, the halves and then the whole animal. That’s where you get the traceability from,” he says.

The IoT “is disruptive, and farmers have made an investment in their existing infrastructure,” Mr. Hartley says. “If you can’t demonstrate the utility, then you’re just selling a promise. We needed to demonstrate that it does work and there is benefit to be had.”

The project took two months, including six weeks to monitor the meat as it traveled through the supply chain. Once it was completed in 2012 on time—and at US$20,000, under budget—farmers’ attitudes about IoT and transitioning to new naming standards changed because they could see the value in the process, Mr. Hartley says. It offered them a real-time look at how their product advanced through the supply chain, and thus the ability to isolate and evaluate the performance of different vendors along the way, such as processing companies, shipping firms, wholesalers and retailers.

The IoT "is disruptive, and farmers have made an investment in their existing infrastructure. If you can’t demonstrate the utility, then you’re just selling a promise."
— Gary Hartley, GS1 New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand

Armed with that sort of IoT-enabled data, “You can start making really solid decisions about what’s happening, because you can see any choke points. You can see who’s got it, where it’s supposed to be next, and what time it’s supposed to be there,” Mr. Hartley says. “We demonstrated actionable supply chain visibility.”

In mid-2014, he upped the ante with a pilot project to track a shipment of meat products from New Zealand to Malaysia. When the shipment reached its destination in June, Mr. Hartley succeeded not only in demonstrating its traceability, but also its authenticity: All the meat was butchered according to the halal standard of Islam.

Through these projects, Mr. Hartley believes he’s proved both the power of the IoT and the value of interoperability. “You can’t have a global supply chain using regional standards,” he says.

Originally Published in the November 2014 PM Network