A friend of mine recently told me he was surprised by an experience he had with some of his Apple products. He had downloaded a couple of games for his iPhone from the App Store.
The next time he opened his iPad, the games were already there, even though he hadn’t taken any action to sync them up. His two devices and the app-store cloud had gone off and talked amongst themselves and done whatever needed to be done.
Most of us simply accept the wonders of the Apple ecosystem without trying to figure out what’s behind it. But my friend’s experience is just one example of the growing value in empowering the “Internet of things” to drive business processes.
An increasing variety of non-electronic systems are starting to be transformed by inter-machine communications. Those communications control business processes that are becoming faster and more automatic.
W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher with the Intelligent System Lab at the Palo Alto Research Center, recently wrote an article in McKinsey Quarterly, pointing out that underpinning the real world is a second, digital world that is growing exponentially. It is, in fact, controlling more and more of the real world.
Arthur uses the example of a package of machine parts being shipped into Rotterdam. Its arrival on a pallet is registered by RFID; typically the information is then forwarded to the freight terminal that will receive it next and the trucker who needs to carry it and the factory that is awaiting it. All that information drives human activity, but the commands didn’t come from humans, they came from automated communications between machines.
The communications among the machines make the whole process highly responsive. People get involved only when they’re needed for tasks like driving the truck, or opening the loading dock door.
In the real world of airline delays, responsive process management is playing a growing role. New regulations fine airlines up to $27,000 per passenger for keeping passengers trapped in planes on the tarmac for more than three hours, even in cases of unavoidable storm delays. That has forced airlines to develop automated processes that recognize when a plane is within 30 minutes of that limit and start taking needed steps. If all gates are occupied, the airline must find a gate that is about to board, and delay that flight so the first one can return to the gate. It has to try to assemble a new crew to make sure flight-time limits aren’t exceeded. It has to start rebooking passengers with connections and identifying preferred fliers for special treatment. This kind of responsiveness demands electronic processes that tell humans what to do.
Cisco estimates that by 2020, there will be 50 billion devices connected to the Internet. While many people will have more than one device they use to reach the Internet, most Internet-connected devices won’t be human-interface tools. They will be machines that will communicate with other machines in processes that only occasionally reach out for human intervention.
These tools promise to make our world work a lot better. In some cases they will improve efficiency, reduce pollution, cut costs and boost profits. In others they will amuse us, entertain us or monitor us.
The reality is that the tools themselves will mostly be useful by communicating with each other. Those communications will initiate processes. Businesses can’t rely on humans being able to absorb the growing amount of information and quickly respond to changing events. They need to use modern software technology to design responsive processes that will take the right actions.