The Internet of Things (IoT) is riding high on a wave of hype. And examples pop up in the tech and business media all the time. Precision agriculture solutions from industry stalwarts like John Deere in the U.S. have blanketed fields with monitors to collect data and automate crop care. Smart Cities such as Barcelona are leveraging IoT to optimize energy use, waste removal, parking, traffic flows, lighting, and irrigation of city parks. Smart homes are starting to look after the elderly. Beacons and drones are monitoring oil and gas supply lines. And cars will soon be talking to each other and the road itself — leaving humans largely out of the conversation.
And yet there is so much more that you don’t hear about. The media tends to rely on a stock set of examples that are just the high-profile tip of an iceberg far larger than most people realize. Big-name companies are in the business of showcasing their forward-looking technology. Agricultural equipment manufacturers shout about their data because they need new revenue streams. Carmakers must boast of their IoT achievements because Tesla and BMW have made it mandatory. And cities need to please residents and give businesses the necessary tools to improve performance.
But when it comes to IoT innovations, a great many organizations are keeping their mouths shut. Take suppliers of copiers and printers as an example. They quietly added remote monitoring, remote maintenance calls, and automated reordering of supplies as value adds to the leasing of a machine — at first because these services were differentiators. Later, suppliers had to include them or lose customers to competitors. According to Milan Kalal, an IoT program manager at IDC, hardcopy device suppliers are not the only ones engaged in “stealth IoT”. He has encountered scores of examples in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), where IoT investments are growing more than 40% faster than in the U.S. and around 15% faster than in Germany.
“The IoT market continues to grow very rapidly. Businesses, governments, and other organizations are all familiar with the IoT concept now,” says Kalal. “There has been an explosion of industry-specific pilots in the past months, and we are moving to scaled deployments. Organizations are making strategic decisions to invest in a connected strategy as a means to drive efficiencies, enhance internal visibility, and ensure competitive advantage — but often in complete silence.”
IDC numbers bear this out. IoT investments are soaring globally, with total spending in 2021 expected to be double what it was in 2016 (in constant dollars). And while connected cars are media darlings (for good reasons), IoT users around the world are investing more than three times as much into manufacturing operations and around twice as much into freight monitoring than into connected cars. In Central and Eastern Europe, where Kalal is based, a survey conducted in 2016 suggests that 30% of the region’s companies have already implemented IoT solutions. And IDC expects this figure to rise, as IoT deployments are key enablers of digital transformation, a primary concern for businesses across the region.
Stealth IoT as a Strategic Choice
According to Kalal, companies keep their IoT initiatives under wraps for three key reasons. The first is simply the risk. While IoT is the future, it is also incredibly new. Many organizations are still exploring the technology and accept they will make missteps. Going public with a project could backfire if that project ends up delayed or fails to produce exciting ROI numbers. The second reason is that most IoT initiatives are simply not that sexy. Automated route planning for fleets of delivery vans is no longer novel and is increasingly expected. So too are assembly-line monitoring and ATM remote tracking, both of which fully automate key processes while reducing maintenance costs (albeit in very different ways).
The third reason why companies are reluctant to broadcast their IoT success stories is strategic: Imitation is much easier than it used to be and takes far less time. According to IDC’s CEE survey, more than 60% of IoT decision making happens at the board or C-level, which suggests that IoT is strategically significant. Think back to the 1990s. Wal-Mart’s genius move to use supply-chain management techniques to change its retail paradigm from single-store performance to store-ecosystem performance was nearly impossible to recreate given the technology available at the time. But the hardware and software the company paid millions for then can be acquired for thousands today.
The same applies to IoT technology. Over the past few years, the surge in IoT offerings and improving technology has put IoT within reach of companies with only modest margins and limited IT budgets. In CEE, for instance, more than half of those rolling out IoT initiatives are using edge and cloud computing rather than classic datacenters. Moreover, network operators and OTT service providers are making connectivity increasingly easy. And both off-the-shelf software and specialist developers have mushroomed around the globe.
“As the Internet of Things market matures beyond its nascence, we will see entire industries come alive and revise their value propositions, all because IoT has given them insights like never before,” says Kalal. “But don't expect to read about individual successes in the news. Organizations deploying IoT know it can be a great disruptor. They also know that its value will increase as time goes by, as it provides data and insight into operations and customer behavior that can be further used to modify business models. Organizations can thus quietly march to the head of the curve.”
In other words, speaking too loudly about an IoT plan and how it will add operational or customer value is a good way to spur more agile competitors to do the same — and overtake you.