Most big challenges are tough to overcome alone. The Internet of Things is no exception.
To stay competitive in the IoT age, you need real-time visibility into your customers, your supply chain, and your ever-expanding endpoints. Along with lightning-fast responses to disruption and changing market conditions.
But IoT’s explosion in connectivity and capabilities brings vexing complexity, in everything from sensor and network technology to security and data analysis.
As powerful as IoT can be, it’s still far from a mature set of technologies and services. That means that any IoT initiative requires stitching together multiple pieces in order to build something that works effectively.
“IoT is something where different players need to be working together,” said Teppo Rantanen, executive director of growth, innovation, and competitiveness for Tampere, Finland, a rapidly evolving smart city. “There’s still companies that think they can do everything themselves, but that’s going away.”
Whether they’re capturing real-time information from retail customers, monitoring industrial machines on a plant floor, or tracking energy usage on a smart grid, organizations depend on outside expertise today as never before. It’s not just the relative immaturity of IoT technologies that pose challenges. These initiatives, by definition, have wide-ranging impact on technology infrastructure, business processes, and how employees do their jobs.
Challenges around IoT initiatives
But if only 26 percent are successful at their IoT initiatives, what exactly are they doing right?
One critical factor that came to light in the survey was partners. Successful companies know that IoT brings massive data streams to be analyzed, mounting security threats to be countered, talent shortages to be addressed, and legacy technologies to be modernized.
Those are just a few of the challenges that arise for many organizations as IoT evolves from a nascent to a mature technology. And they highlight that IoT cannot be a solo act. More than ever, outside expertise is critical to success.
But when building a partner ecosystem, it’s important to know:
- When to engage with partners and for which projects.
- How to choose the right partners and integrate them with your own teams.
- The best ways to orchestrate diverse groups of partners, all with different specialties.
Here are seven key tips for making the partner ecosystem work for your company.
1. Tap partners from the start
The sheer complexity of a typical IoT initiative is nearly always beyond the scope of an organization’s existing technology resources. A company might be brilliant at manufacturing or selling a product, but sensor technology, network integration, security, and data analysis could be another story altogether.
Organizations face all kinds of obstacles to IoT success, from lack of internal expertise and data quality to complications around solution integration and legacy infrastructures.
A big part of overcoming those challenges is being clear on the goals and objectives, such as how IoT data will be leveraged, from the outset. So, it’s no surprise that those who are succeeding at IoT are more likely to use partners at every stage of an initiative, including strategic planning (See Figure 2).
Consolidated Edison was careful to study the successes and failures of other cities that had adopted smart meters before them, then consulted experienced partners at the earliest stages of planning.
Partners bring critical experience from their work on a range of projects with other customers. They can provide the benefits of lessons already learned the hard way.
Consolidated Edison, the New York power utility, is in the process of introducing smart meters for its more than three million customers. Manny Cancel, Con Ed’s CIO, said his team was careful to study the successes and failures of other cities that had adopted smart meters before them. They then consulted experienced partners at the earliest stages of planning.
“We’ve learned not only from our peers in the industry,” Cancel said, “but from many of the partners that have done this for other companies. So we brought people in at the very early stages to plan this out and to help refine our thoughts in terms of how we’re going to deploy some of these things.”
Partners offer the advantage of experience and insight throughout an initiative, not just at the early stages.
Successful organizations engage partners at every stage of IoT
AW North Carolina, a key supplier of transmissions for Toyota, already has a highly automated plant floor. But the company is in the process of adding new visibility into its vast array of industrial machines and hand tools, with the ultimate aim of reducing downtime through predictive maintenance. That demanded a network upgrade, and new initiatives around sensor technology and data sharing and analysis that are beyond the scope of its internal expertise.
John Peterson, the general manager of AW North Carolina, emphasized that his team engaged with partners “from the get-go.”
“We bring them in,” he said, “literally from the point that we were even selecting tools to the point where we went through a discovery phase about how to integrate into operations, to design the applications to fit what we were doing. We definitely bring partners in at the very start of that and all the way through that process.”
As Peterson stressed, those early decisions — like choosing the right tools — can have far-reaching effects. And getting them right, with the advice of carefully selected and experienced partners, can go a long way toward continued success and executive buy-in.
Cisco’s survey highlighted another key benefit from early success: executive support.
Executive support is critical for IoT initiatives
Don Kingsborough, president of Westfield Retail Solutions, added that partners are invaluable when deciding on the direction of a project.
“Some of these people have ideas that are further along than ours on the aspect of the technology that they are working on,” he said, “and so to me the collaboration part of this strategy stage is what helps focus what the end product is.”
2. Know your strengths—and your talent gaps
Every company has its core, in-house strengths. And often, that inside knowledge of customer demands, industry trends, and legacy systems is unsurpassed. You and your team are the best experts on your own business.
But it’s also important to know what you don’t know. And where outside expertise can best augment your own team.
IoT is changing the way companies do business at a sometimes dizzying pace. In our survey, 46 percent of respondents admitted that they lacked the knowledge or expertise to understand the extent to which IoT could help their businesses.
That is not a negative, especially in an area that’s developing so rapidly. Again, the first step is admitting what you don’t know. Then you can seek outside help to define the possibilities.
“Some solutions in the earliest phases were built by our own people,” Rantanen said of Tampere’s smart city initiatives. “Now, we’re looking for different entities to make it better, to get all the different types of data connected better. And we’re doing that with a number of big global partners, including Nokia, Cisco, Siemens, SAP.”
Even having in-house expertise often isn’t enough. The scale and scope of IoT initiatives will likely require more.
“While we may have some of the skills,” said ConEd’s Cancel, “we don’t have enough of them. The bandwidth needed to affect these things is a challenge, and it’s expanding quickly.”
It’s important, he added to know just where partners can bring that additional bandwidth to the table.
Cancel sees data analytics as one area where outside reinforcements are crucial.
“Analytics is a good example of where we’ve reached out to partners to help us,” he said, “how we use that data, analyze it to help make decisions regarding our operational systems, to help customers make better decisions about the energy they’re utilizing. But it goes across the spectrum from security to network architecture.”
AW’s Peterson cites his partners’ abilities to test and assess new solutions as another strength they add to the mix. This helps confirm the viability of a technology initiative early on, and, if successful, confirms executive buy-in and investment.
“To me,” he stressed, “that is a huge advantage, and partnering enables you to do it much faster than you could on your own.”
Such outside abilities complement a core team’s strong points, while offering a learning experience that will serve them moving forward.
“It helps us to build the skills,” said Cancel, “that’ll help us build the road maps for our business organizations as we go forward.”
3. Find the right partners for your business
In the IoT world, there is no shortage of potential partners, vendors, and service providers. But finding the right ones to meet your needs is a challenge in and of itself, as Figure 4 illustrates.
Key challenges around choosing a vendor
In our survey, 60 percent of respondents said that despite understanding the potential of IoT to transform their business, they had a hard time finding the right partners to help implement their initiatives.
The stakes are high: 40 percent cited outside vendor or partner costs as their top area of budget overruns.
It’s not simply a question of finding the right technical skills, but identifying an appropriate cultural fit for your organization.
As Westfield’s Kingsborough warned, it’s critical to vet each potential partner. And ensure that they have the expertise and experience to deliver what they promise.
“I call it the believability factor,” Kingsborough stressed. “You have to believe that they can deliver the things that you’re asking them to.”
Meeting that believability threshold, he added, can take time and patience.
“Of all the partners that come in here,” he qualified, “we might select one in 20 or 25 to actually partner with. Either because they don’t have the capabilities that they claim, or they’re trying to develop them. We need someone who can bring the expertise and some of the technology.”
Cancel looks for the right mix of partners, with specialties that complement one another.
“We generally are very wary of people who say they can be all things to all people,” he said. “We look at who’s best in breed in a particular domain and tend to go with that.”
Getting that mix right, at the start, is essential for ongoing success.
“At the core and the heart of it is not really the technology,” Rantanen said. “It is how the ecosystem works. The different players [have to] come together in the right way, understanding how they create value, how they share value in this ecosystem.”
If cultural fit isn’t already a heavily weighted selection criterion, make it one.
4. Get everyone in the same room (or at least on the same page)
In initiatives as complex as IoT, success hinges on coordinating multiple partners and internal stakeholders as they navigate a complex set of changes. Make sure everyone involved has a clear – and common – understanding of the objectives.
Peterson recommends getting all parties together in those critical early stages, to whatever extent is possible.
“It’s always good to bring those groups together,” he said, “everybody in a room or at least on a call, and voice to voice or face to face to say, this is what we’re all doing. This is where everybody’s optimal zone is within this particular project and to re-emphasize that so everybody feels part of the team, part of the results, but they all know there’s lots of good forward going work for all of them if we can all stay in our lane until we collectively agree that that lane should change.”
If initiatives are underway, it’s best to get the alignment among partners established as soon as possible, as Teppo Rantanen argues.
“About a year ago, there were some initiatives going on already, which were isolated and they had randomly selected partners.”
Rantanen had a wider vision, however.
“What I did was I brought this big picture strategy,” he added, “and I started to bring those strategic partners, the likes of Cisco, Nokia, GE, Siemens. With key partners we started to build a stronger ecosystem. We started to build a stronger ecosystem with those big anchor players.”
Since IoT investments tend to be closely interrelated and span multiple initiatives, this kind of strategic approach has major benefits.
5. Combine clearly defined roles into one vision
Managing multiple partners effectively is difficult under any circumstances. It’s particularly challenging in an area that is evolving and changing as rapidly as IoT.
Having outside partners on board early may be a key to success. But it takes additional leadership to ensure that a diverse collection of erstwhile competitors work in harmony — and towards a common goal.
After all, IoT can mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people. Finding what solutions are best to achieve your business outcomes can be a delicate balancing act when multiple partners are involved.
The first step is clearly defining that overarching goal.
Don Kingsborough is as enamored as anyone with the potential of IoT. But he’s careful to ensure that solutions align with Westfield’s needs and his customers’ demands.
“On one hand I’m enormously encouraged about the possibilities,” he said, “and on the other I think we have to define it, to find the simple straightforward things that impact the consumer or business in everyday life.”
As important as it is for the customer to set the direction — and to lead — partners can still help in clarifying that vision.
“The problem that I see is [IoT] can be almost anything,” Kingsborough added, “and therefore without clear direction and clear use cases it becomes an amorphous thing. So, partners in the strategy stage who’ve had experience or have developed products with their own vision help clarify the products that the consumer will eventually end up using.”
Beyond creating that overarching goal, it’s essential that multiple partners know their individual roles and what they need to do to attain that goal, as Peterson recommends.
“The best way is just be completely clear on what it is you’re trying to achieve,” he said, “where you are at that point. Everybody’s role in the room is don’t try to overreach from where you are. Make sure you do your piece and do it very effectively.”
6. Know who’s in charge
When it’s time to file a tax return, you might pay someone else to do the actual work. But you’re still the one responsible. IoT is no different.
Ultimately, you, the customer, have to make the final decisions. But to get to that point, someone has to take the lead role in coordinating efforts. That could be you or an outside entity. Or some balance between the two. But at the end of the day, it’s the customer who must show results.
Just over half of our survey respondents said that lack of integration among vendors was preventing them from moving forward with their IoT initiatives. Getting the right mix isn’t always easy. IoT requires both technical and operational integration.
“The challenge is integrating all those players,” Cancel said, “getting them to play nice. But essentially they do. Because there’s a vested interest in making sure that the projects are successful.”
To that end, Cancel said, ConEd oversees a lot of the orchestration of partners. However, they combine their own efforts with a third party that specializes in project management.
“We found that model, particularly for some of these large initiatives, to be working quite well,” Cancel continued. “We were a little concerned, but it actually is working well, because it has everybody focusing on their core competence.”
Similarly, Rantanen shares some of the leadership role with Nokia, which has had a strong presence in Tampere for decades.
“Probably because of the heritage and the strong presence still here,” he said, “Nokia has played a big role.”
Peterson has also had a positive experience integrating partners with AW North Carolina’s internal teams and overall goals. But it does have its challenges, he cautions.
“When you get all these people into the same room and you say, ‘This is how we’re going to behave,’ ” he said, “you’ve got to reinforce that over time.” There are times when one group will kind of have some territory within their scope and span that might go into one of the other groups. I always say, “Look I don’t mind there being a little bit of overlap, but realize your space. There’s enough work here for everybody.”
It’s important that each partner knows their assigned role, especially considering that some may vie for competitive advantage outside the partnership.
It’s important, he adds, that each partner knows their assigned role, especially considering that some may vie for competitive advantage outside the partnership. Failing that, Peterson is not afraid to play the heavy.
“Even in that room they’re competitors,” Peterson added. “I have to reiterate to them, ‘realize in this project, on this group, this is your space. If you want to reach outside of that space, there’s a lot of other companies out there I can replace you with. Don’t make me do that.’”
The power of the ecosystem offers great value in IoT. Although multiple partners are almost inevitable, those that are larger or
have particularly influential expertise often help to coordinate and keep others on track.
7. Put people at the heart of the partner connection
In the end, partners should solve existing problems, not create new ones. In IoT, that means establishing clear communication across internal teams and partners. It also means building the trust required to learn from mistakes, overcome obstacles, and adapt in order to meet key objectives.
Our survey respondents agreed that learnings from stalled or failed initiatives proved valuable in the end, and often led to accelerated investments. That shows the importance of flexible leadership that’s willing to move forward rather than place blame. Experienced partners can lessen or avoid those roadblocks altogether — or speed the learning process if a project does stall.
Learned from failed initiatives
A good working relationship — built on clear communication, emotional intelligence, and collaboration skills — is as important as technology expertise.
“Technology, of course, plays a very, very important part,” Rantanen said. “Still, if you don’t get the ecosystem working, if you don’t get the different players to come together in the right way, understanding how they create value, how they share value in this ecosystem, then we don’t succeed.”
That means communication.
“First and foremost is an open dialog,” Cancel stated. “Making sure that we’re not talking through each other. We’re listening to what the capabilities are and developing an understanding of the capabilities that partners bring to the equation. Then it’s finding the right mix.”
Peterson said that he talks to partners “literally daily” and aims to get the whole group to meet “every few weeks, at least once a month.”
“To date,” he added, “It’s been really effective. The best way is just be completely clear on what it is you’re trying to achieve, where you are at that point.”
Trust, Kingsborough adds, is another essential element in the partner/customer relationship.
“Sometimes you have to give to get,” he said. “You have to be willing to share things that are normally kept within the bounds of the business to maximize the partnership.”
Another reason, he stressed, for carefully vetting partners and opening clear lines of communication from the start.
The partner ecosystem: your key to unlocking the power of IoT
Like any disruptive technology, the Internet of Things is rapidly creating new opportunities. With those opportunities come technological and organizational challenges alike. IoT’s rapid evolution will continue to demand a broad mix of skills and expertise to be effective.
With the right ingredients — including partners — in place, IoT can open dynamic new possibilities for your company. As our observations and analysis show, IoT data is driving increased insight into customer behaviors, greater energy conservation, and new products, services and business models. It’s also improving quality, decision-making, and operational efficiencies.
Moving forward, new technologies will drive disruption — and opportunities — at an ever-accelerating rate. Artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, automated networks, blockchain, all put new demands on organizations to stay ahead of the curve. While creating great customer and citizen experiences and faster, cleaner, and more efficient operations.
Few organizations will act alone. As we have seen, successful companies pull in partners at every stage of an initiative, a trend that we expect to intensify.
Most of the organizations we surveyed agree that we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible with IoT. And as John Peterson of AW North Carolina stressed, the synergy of diverse talents and expertise will enable IoT to be a true game changer.
“It’s the collective organization of all of us together,” he said, “that’s going to cause this to be a disruptive force, to where the company is going to go to a different stage.”
The City of Tampere’s Teppo Ratanen concludes that once the collective power of the partner ecosystem is unleashed, the potential of IoT is virtually unlimited.
“What we see is just the start of the digital revolution,” he said. “It will be only five to ten years when we see totally a different world. It will impact almost all the areas of the business or of the city. Our mission is to make sure we are riding the wave of that change, so people can have better lives with the help of technology.”
Partners might just be the most critical tool in making that vision a reality.