Information Management, internet of things, Dr. SuessWhat ever happened to the Internet as a social phenomenon? You know the Internet where people are connecting, investigating, collaborating, envisioning and creating? Oh, that’s so yesterday. Now what’s trending is the Internet of Things (IoT), with machines talking to machines.

Here is my take on the IoT and how it will impact the world of enterprise information management. In the spirit of Dr. Seuss, we’ll look at "what a CIO should do if a CIO only knew" to get things under control.

Our World is Becoming an Information System

The Internet of Things is very much in the news these days and seems to have captured the imagination of academics, consultants, business leaders, technologists and investors alike. I too am intrigued by the IoT and, it won’t surprise readers of my CMSWire article series, am particularly interested in what it might mean to CIOs and information management professionals.

To fully appreciate what the IoT is all about, it’s important to consider both its history and its context in today’s technology ecosystem.

The term itself was coined in 1999 and there is a fascinating IoT timeline that runs all the way from the era of the Victorian Internet (telegraph) to the recent creation of the IoT-GSI (Global Standards Initiative). Gartner describes IoT as “the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.” A more aspirational view comes from McKinsey who tell us that with the IoT, “the world becomes a type of information system through sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects and linked through wired and wireless networks via the Internet Protocol.”

Gartner sees the IoT approaching the peak in their hype cycle for emerging technologies, but according to market watchers like Matt Turck, the IoT is quite real and not just an over-hyped concept destined to fade with time.

In fact, the IoT is already being applied; examples range from whimsical to global impact. There are creative applications from Makey Makey like “Cloud Server BLT” (not a typo -- check out the video) that have the serious purpose of making everyone experience what it means to be an engineer. At the other end of the spectrum, GE envisions the IoT as the next industrial revolution, a new Industrial Internet where the major industries save more than US$ 270 billion over the next 15 years by improving their efficiency by just one percent: “By connecting intelligent machines to each other and ultimately to people to change the way the world works.”

I like to think of the IoT as “serious fun,” the kind that promises exciting possibilities if we know how to get it under control. From Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat we learn, “It is fun to have fun but you have to know how.” So with a nod to two of my favorite Dr. Seuss characters Thing 1 and Thing 2, who are “released from the box” to wreak havoc until brought back under control, here are my “Thing 1” and “Thing 2.” That is, two things I think will be important for CIOs to get under control if they plan to effectively deal with the IoT in the future.

THING 1: With the IoT, information and physical flows will be inextricably tied together

With the Internet of Things, physical devices and flows are inextricably united with their information. As Dr. Seuss would say, “This may not seem very important, I know, but it is, so I'm bothering telling you so.” It turns out that this tight coupling, along with a concomitant convergence of operational and business systems, raises some very big governance and risk challenges for those in the enterprise concerned with information management.

We have certainly had to learn to deal with and orchestrate multiple flows (materials, financials and information) over our supply chains for some time. With the IoT or “fourth industrial revolution,” there will be a new sets of information generated in new ways that must become a part of the enterprise governance plan. Imagine the somewhat futuristic scenario that is shared in McKinsey’s “Internet of Things and the future of manufacturing”:

Most companies think of physical flows -- meaning the flow of material components through the supply chain -- as separate from information flows and then consider how and where to coordinate and synchronize them. After the fourth industrial revolution, there will no longer be a difference between information and materials, because products will be inextricably linked to 'their' information.

For example, unfinished material already knows for which customer it is intended and carries with it all the information about where and when it will be processed. Once the material is in the machine, the material itself records any deviations from the standard process, determines when it’s 'done,' and knows how to get to its customer.“

Future scenarios like this will require a platform for information governance much like the enterprise information management (EIM) technologies that I work with today. A platform that can combine structured and unstructured data – including data from the IoT and its related systems -- with a content management construct to capture all the information for regulatory and audit compliance and for archiving governance. The CIO is going to need to ensure that this platform is implemented across the enterprise to achieve an effective customer-centric information approach that can be used in context for critical business decisions.

In addition, CIOs are going to need to be especially attuned to the convergence aspects of the IoT that raises critical infrastructure protection requirements. I did some early work around cyber security challenges with the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) that provides the President with advice on the security of the critical infrastructure sectors and their information systems. At the time, our Convergence of Physical and Cyber Technologies report looked at the emerging trend of critical physical infrastructure control systems being interconnected with business systems and the risks this presented.

By way of background, industrial control systems like SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems have evolved through at least three generations. At first, these systems were highly independent with no connectivity to other systems. Then system processing was distributed across multiple stations which were connected through a LAN and they shared information in real time with network protocols that were still mostly proprietary.

Today the systems are being integrated and also interconnected with business systems using Internet protocols. We hear from engineers like Johnny Doin about the evolution of standalone embedded systems into “massive and powerful networks of devices that deliver unprecedented amounts of data over the Internet.” As this reaches a critical mass stage, new applications will emerge like monitoring of micro-weather and seismic activity from data extracted from sensors distributed across multiple industrial grids.

As we move then from relatively disconnected grids to a highly interconnected infrastructure, new IoT enabled applications will raise the stakes for CIOs. To get things under control, best to begin now with an information management strategy that considers all data in its purview for governance, risk management and compliance.

THING 2: With the IoT business processes will change in revolutionary ways

Networking giant CISCO sees an “Internet of Everything” that is not only about devices and infrastructure, but also about how to change business processes related to those connected devices and linked to humans. The Cisco vision foresees this change will drive trillions in cost savings and revenue over the coming decade through better automation based on information derived from those sensors.

As Dr. Seuss tells us, “It's not about what it is, it's about what it can become.” In this new world of internet-enabled devices that can sense their environment and communicate with each other and with us, we will need both information management and process improvement professionals to realize the full potential. CIOs will need to ensure that the discipline and technology of business process management is a part of their strategic view of the enterprise.

And where do humans figure in this narrative? It turns out that people are alive and well in the Internet of Things. The very notion of "embedded" is really a continuum that tracks from wearable devices to human machine interfaces. Further, we have learned that the purpose of process improvement is not only automation where humans are removed from the process. It is also about human machine collaboration where CIOs can employ an adaptive case management construct and technology to drive the productivity of the knowledge workers and customers involved in those processes.

The sky may be the limit in this aspect of the IoT, but will we need to beware? In his recent, excellent post “How the Internet of Things will Think,” Brian Proffitt considers what might happen when devices can talk to each other:

The vision of a machine-learning knowledge fabric is a compelling one … so long as machines don’t learn too much and form their own too-clever-by-half ideas about what to do with these humans running around the planet. As economist Andrew McAfee noted sardonically in in a recent Ted talk ... I'm going to start worrying about those the day my computer becomes aware of my printer.”

You’re off to great places, so get on your way

Though there certainly will be technical, business, and yes even ethical challenges ahead for the Internet of Things, I see mostly exciting possibilities for the future. One question that CIOs must face is who will be responsible for the IoT within the enterprise. In her recent post, Stacey Higginbotham aptly comments:

Even as the internet of things is being driven by marketing departments who in turn are working with product engineers, it’s also creating another headache inside companies. When enterprises deploy sensors in cars and workplaces, or when executives bring their own connected devices (BYOIoT anyone?), IT departments are called on to support them.”

In my view, not only will IT need to support the IoT, strategic CIOs will want to be a part of leveraging the technology for enterprise innovation, efficiency and growth. So just when CIOs thought they were perhaps getting a handle on putting the Internet to work as a collaborative human network and social phenomena, there are new IoT challenges and exciting opportunities emerging.

My advice to the CIO is to embrace this. Gain inspiration from Dr. Seuss who in his final book issues the challenge:

“You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So ... get on your way!”

Editor's Note: To get more of Deb's perspective, read her Oz the Great and Powerful: How ACM Transforms the Customer Experience