Who Will Steer the Connected Ship?
Apr/May 2014
Gregg Garrett

It is pretty clear this world is well on its way to connecting. It is no longer just the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) that highlights the IoT (Internet of Things) and connected products. Try to walk into a retail store, an airport, a car dealership, even a sporting event without experiencing some form of connected product that is more than likely streaming data.

Statistically we may have not yet reached the tipping point on our way to the promised 30, 45, or 60 billion connected devices. As a society living in this connected world, however, there is no turning back. People will refuse to return to the siloed life of just a few years ago when products were used in isolation, and the user was forced to be the key integrator. Expectations for how connectivity is applied are only increasing at both the consumer and enterprise levels.

With the market demanding these experiences, economic principles tell us this demand will be matched with supply. Perhaps the question is when?

Developing a Connected Workforce
Enabling connectivity in products brings together professional skills and product lifecycles that have rarely played together before. Connectivity requires IT professionals to link with product engineers as what was once hardware becomes software. Business development professionals must better understand the intricacies of commercial telecom plans to ensure pricing strategies are properly defined. Marketing professionals must determine if they are selling a product or a service. In the end, the pace in which connectivity grows may not be limited by technological innovation but how ready the workforce is prepared to design, build, and manage in this era.

Learning new patterns of how to work together takes time. Formal education programs, especially those at the university level, often lag industry trends by years. Connectivity is not only disrupting corporations but also their workforce and the training necessary to prepare it. How often does your firm's chief connected officer meet with the head of HR to determine a development plan? If they did, where would an HR professional turn? Most of the typical sources are not yet prepared to produce skilled candidates that understand the basic building blocks needed.

Colleges and educational institutes are likely educating in the same manor they were before the connected environment started to arrive. The core of the key disciplines (engineering, computer science, business admin., etc.) is still very much the same, however, the need to help students and professionals look at the world differently is absolutely upon us. Designing, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, and servicing a connected product is not the same as the unconnected version. Students must be taught the major building blocks that matter and must be given a chance to reflect on this prior to entering the full-time workforce.

Students Are Ready
I have been fortunate enough to develop relationships with universities across North America. During the last 36 months I have visited classrooms and started to guest lecture with the intent of exposing students to the promise of the connected world. Feedback from professors and students has been fantastic.

In 2012, I was asked to address the freshman class of the Honors College at Oakland University in Michigan. As I stood before several hundred of the brightest 18–20-year-olds in southeast Michigan, I was encouraged to see the excitement in their eyes as they learned about the world they would be living in. These "digital natives" were ready to learn, as so much of the messaging seemed natural to this class where the majority of the students had been connected through mobile devices for more than seven years. Dozens approached me after the class asking how they can prepare to take advantage of this trend. The scary part is there isn't a lot out there!

Several of the leading educational institutions in the United States have specialty courses that focus on different applications of the connected environment. Many of these are built around a specific industry and have been driven by the needs of corporations that sponsor them. Most universities have pieces of the equation being taught in different colleges (courses in analytics, systems engineering, etc.), but few have programs that help to bridge these disciplines together. The students therefore enter the workforce with raw skills but very little perspective of how to apply it.

Lessons that Matter
Corporate leadership often looks at Gen Y as the digital segment. This is the segment that is driving the need for ultra-connectivity. Interestingly, they do understand it from a "user perspective," but they are just as lost when it comes to how to design, build and manage it. Educators need to bring this together into a more coordinated program. Students are interested in three phases of education:

  • Introduction to connected: An early course for engineers and business majors that assists them in the basics of the connected.
  • Integrated course work: Ensure that professors teaching core courses emphasizing independent skills understand how connectivity may be affecting their disciplines. They should be using examples that build off of one another.
  • Capstone course: A project-based course that allows for students to work together to solve real world connected problems. Teams should bring together design, engineering, and business skills.

Throughout these phases, a few themes will begin to develop as the principles of connected success. Some likely winners in that race will be:

  • Basic architecture (off/on board) – What is a connected system? Help students recognize the building blocks and key decisions of each.
  • Integration – Perhaps the most important lesson is to help students understand that a connected environment is an integrated environment. Integration will be at many levels (at the product, across products, across industries, across disciplines, etc.)
  • Shifting economics – As product and user-driven data becomes available, how do the economics of the business begin to shift?
  • User experience – The importance of putting the user in the middle of the equation and understanding how one product must function with the other ones in that user's life.

Where to Turn 
The skills that will enable the connected world are already in high demand. IT, engineering, digital marketing, and strong business development capabilities are part of many traditional industries, not only ones that bill themselves as connected. This demand will only compound the issue and need for more programs in the developing workforce. So what is a connected leader to do?

Approach your local university/educational institution. Most deans and department leaders want to bridge the relationship with industry. Your reach will be welcomed.

Be patient. With few formal programs and teaching materials existing, educators will be challenged with getting started.

Volunteer. More than likely if you are reading this article, you know more than most about the connected environment. Start to guest lecture, bring case studies, and sponsor internships.

As demand drives our industries, our corporate leaders must drive our educational leaders to begin to prepare our future workforce. This challenge nudged me to accept an adjunct faculty position allowing me to teach both a masters and undergraduate course focused on educating students on how to "Compete in the Connected World." From this perch, we can better understand the challenges of shifting our educational resources and be part of the solution. Waiting for others to fill this emerging gap will not prove successful. It is time for us to invest in our most important connected resource, the human one!




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