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Achieving IoT Interoperability

By Scott Johnson, CEO & Founder, Devicify

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Scott Johnson, CEO & Founder, Devicify

As the effects of the Internet of Things (IoT) permeate our lives, companies will be forced to figure out how to effectively control an often huge pool of connected products in addition to properly leveraging the subsequent potential flood of information. Most IoT initiatives that have begun to tackle this challenge have understandably focused on the “Things” or the products. The unfortunate results include data structures, infrastructures and development priorities that incorrectly favor the product over the business. The collisions between digital-physical, IT-OT and product-service, being fueled by the IoT make it increasingly important that product generated or sensed data be relevant and accessible to the business systems. Companies that succeed in reconciling these normally contrasting areas to achieve interoperability across stakeholders and systems, both internal and external, will gain tremendous advantage.

This article outlines several steps, based on a methodology developed by Devicify, which will help maintain focus on the most important aspects of an IoT initiative to ensure interoperability that overcomes many of the largest challenges.

“Collisions between digital-physical, IT-OT and product-service, being fueled by the IoT make it increasingly important that product generated or sensed data be relevant and accessible to the business systems”  

Step 1, Plan (for Control): Proper control will be able to expose information as broadly as is appropriate and valuable. Defining a reference architecture that supports this is always challenging, and more so considering the new situations introduced by the IoT means most of us will not yet have deep experience. Begin by considering what information should be collected from or through the products or sensors you wish to build, sell or deploy. Challenge why that information can be made valuable (i.e. actionable). Determine the desirable control over product functionality and again challenge why. Having these answers up front is often less-than-realistic, so use method of representing and implementing important elements that can be easily expanded.

With confidence in your method, you need not, and should not, plan the entire solution up front. Get moving but make certain you’ve addressed these three elements to preserve scalability.

1) Control. Ensure visibility over the product and its functions and establish control over the enablement of those functions and data you’ve determined to be valuable.

2) Access. Implement a security model that leverages relevant business relationships and context in determining access to products and data.

3) Flexibility. Use a data model that accommodates a wide range of product types, microprocessor powers or even vendor sources so that the use case drives your innovation, not the limitations of your technologies.

Step 2, Design (around Interoperability): Having planned around such criteria, the effort can return to a more typical product development path that is predominantly a developer-led initiative. This is the right time to engage the necessary building, trying and testing. The appropriate architecture will allow the innovative work done by technical teams during this step to be more easily put into practice since the resulting solutions are inherently accessible to and controllable by the business.

Embedding such interoperability yields benefits in the near term but is instrumental in positioning for a more successful follow through. The bigger opportunity and greater challenge arises from how we adapt our processes in order to operate and compete differently by employing the information collected through the products we make and use. Processes and workflows must be designed to respond to events detected by those products, and responses must include automation, not just notification.

Step 3, Deploy (for Scalability): The most efficient way of putting the design model into practice is by deploying digital counterparts to the physical products that coincide with the assembly or receipt of the physical product. This requires templatizing the functional design for reasons similar to why a bill of materials has become the norm in traditional manufacturing and inventory systems. Seek commonality between the models used to reflect the physical product and the models used for their digital counterparts to avoid potentially crippling friction across these realities.

Step 4, Manage (for Change): Continual access to connected products will catalyze further and faster change in our products, solutions and processes. It will demand not just agility in product design, but it will become equally important to consider agility in our processes. The interoperability between product and process must survive these anticipated, but unpredictable changes. Against this backdrop, the importance of building on commonalities spanning the business and product boundaries becomes clearer. It’s essential to ensure a resilient, predictable pathway needed in order to sustain interoperability.

Step 5, Monetize (throughout the Lifecycle): If you’ve properly considered the earlier steps, the opportunities to monetize new IoT capabilities will be abundant. In many cases efficiencies will arise on their own, data-driven design will result in increasingly desirable products and services, and revenue leaks will get automatically plugged. In other cases you’ll be able to expose the right new information to the right audience, at the right time and if you’ve chosen, for the right price. If you’ve designed this access to be granted on a perpetual or subscription basis, you’ve also positioned yourself to create new one-time, recurring or hybrid revenue models.

As we progress in our digital transformation, the physical products around us must be able to easily interact with those digital transactions that are the raw material of our business information systems. Devicify CPM incorporates a model where devices have a sense of necessary business elements. Devices can thereby understand what premium features to activate, and for how long, whenever a particular catalog item is included on sales orders. It allows devices to also understand when those same premium features should be suspended if the related invoice remains unpaid too long. This type of interoperability is fundamental to the success of an IoT initiative. In fact, in an IoT-enabled world, interoperability with the business becomes a core product capability needed to simplify design, speed deployment, and facilitate process innovation. The outcome will be greater opportunity to grow, adapt and disrupt. You need not proceed comprehensively but you must proceed. Keep these steps in mind as you do so.