This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential guide to laptop, desktop PC and mobile device strategy

Turn consumer technology into practical business innovation

Many organisations are missing out on the opportunities for innovating presented by everyday consumer technology

Ever since personal computers hit the marketplace in the 1980s, the IT available to people to use at home has been ahead of what they are using at work. The consumerisation of IT has put technologies such as GPS, iBeacons, 360-degree cameras, wearables, drones, sensors and virtual/augmented reality within an individual’s reach. Yet organisations are slow to consider how they might apply these low-cost consumer devices to business advantage.

Most large organisations focus on using IT to improve productivity within the business. Enterprise IT’s big projects tend to be around ensuring cyber security, manipulating big data or leveraging the cloud. But consumer devices offer an opportunity to improve business processes at the edge – for example, in customer service and for field engineers.

This opportunity is often ignored because of the corporate culture of central IT sourcing and asking permission before experimenting. And although most employees are used to devices such as smartphones and tablets, only the geeks will be familiar with the newer technologies.

National Grid has tackled this head on. National Grid is an electricity and gas utility company serving 20 million customers, mostly in the UK and north-eastern US. It owns and operates a vast and essential energy infrastructure. David Goldsby, National Grid’s digital innovation manager, wanted to explore what a field engineer would be using in five years’ time.

The IT organisation runs annual roadshows to discuss IT directions and user needs, and for a visit to an engineering unit it dressed the executive in charge in full protective equipment and equipped with some of the consumer devices that are available today:

  • iPad with Occipital 3D scanner
  • Google Glass for augmented reality
  • Smart Shirt from OMsignal to track health and wellbeing
  • Orion Onyx push-to-talk communicator for instant real-time communications
  • iBeacons for use with field assets
  • Myo wearable armband for hands-free computer interaction
  • Smartwatch for business notifications

For the engineers at National Grid, this was a glimpse into their future and opened their eyes to the possibilities ahead.

Exploring ideas

To look deeper into the field engineer of the future, Goldsby worked with our Xperience Lab – a mobile and customised collection of the most relevant new technologies, brought to a client’s site so that employees can explore how they might be used. The best ideas always come from the users.

The Lab sessions mix hands-on learning to explore just what the various devices can do, with capturing ideas for how they might be used in the business. The real value is not as a technology “petting zoo”, but showing how consumer technologies can be combined, typically using APIs, to work together and help build prototypes of some of the ideas.

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One advance that came directly from National Grid’s workshops is using a $350 scanner that attaches to an iPad to create 3D models of the holes that are dug to repair underground gas pipes. Goldsby estimates this could save the company a significant amount in excavation costs.

National Grid now runs its own version of the Lab to generate ideas and look for advantages it can create. This has shaken up the corporate culture of National Grid.

“We started with the gas transmission part of the business, but then other parts of the organisation started knocking on our door, asking why hadn’t we done this sooner,” said Goldsby.

“Previously we’d always have gone outside to do this type of work, but to generate most value you need to bring this sort of capability in-house.”

IT used to be seen as a back-office service provider, but now has a strong internal reputation for innovation and works closely with business leaders.

Recipe building

Try combining different technologies using APIs to create higher order systems – so-called “recipe building” – developing general-purpose “recipes” that daisy-chain consumer technologies together.

The beauty of this is that with no coding or development, we can take low-cost commercially available technology and show how these devices can be placed directly into the hands of users to improve enterprise productivity.

However, the benefits of learning about new consumer technologies come not only from applying them directly in business processes. There’s value to be gained in the business simply by being able to push back against suppliers because you’ve got a better understanding of the world we live in.

One thing is for sure: the consumerisation of IT is just getting started, and so the need for double-deep learning continues. Those employees who embrace more of these “edge” technologies will enjoy exciting career opportunities.

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