CIO Folder: Automation is robotics, smart devices are IoT and the CIO is boss

Leslie Faughnan



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9 February 2017 | 0

Let’s start with the CIO, in some sort of homage to the title of this column. The CIO is the boss, we say, and let’s dispose of this CDO nonsense. In fairness, those initials have two meanings — chief digital officer and chief data officer. The former is more common and reflects the recent and probably current obsession with digital transformation.

There are lots of subtleties in transforming any organisation to something that is entirely digital. There are some smart enterprises in the last decade or so that are natively digital — and staffed by people who share that characteristic. But most organisations and enterprises — and that distinction has to be drawn — are being transformed into a new kind of entity. Sloughing off the legacy stuff is not at all easy and the commonest solution is a corporate core that is inherently two-speed, or perhaps a split corporate personality.

“There are lots of subtleties in transforming any organisation to something that is entirely digital. There are some smart enterprises in the last decade or so that are natively digital — and staffed by people who share that characteristic. But most organisations and enterprises are being transformed into a new kind of entity”

Seldom a problem
In fact, it is seldom a problem. The new stuff, the field stuff, the sales and marketing and the data that comes back for analysis can all work through today’s mobile and web tech. Back at the ranch, which might well be virtual and in a cloud somewhere, the more heavyweight corporate systems can function away. Some elements may be legacy kit or software, data may go back to the year dot, but so long as they work together it actually does not matter at all. There may be ways of converting to more efficient architecture but that is mostly an economic business case.

The chief digital officer performs his or her magic in a visibly 21st century, decade 2 front end. The ecosystem of apps and micro-services is hugely powerful precisely because it breaks tasks and processes and transactions into tiny units that fit together like Lego bricks. Or like Meccano gears, for an older generation with an engineering bent in childhood. The strategic value is in the sheer flexibility. An app can be developed from scratch in days or weeks, adapted for a new or narrower process in hours. And deployed in minutes, because each user just has to download and install.

So the technology is sophisticated but inherently simple. That kind of makes the CDig role less of an IT or engineering job and more like a first cousin of marketing. Does it embrace architecture and platform choice and governance and all of that? Possibly, depending on the outfit. In financial services the governance bit is inescapable. Flogging entertainment or fitness bits and bobs or gambling or porn videos (no need to snigger — it’s one of the technically smartest online businesses) it is rather less so.

Broad understanding
Not to dis that variety of CDO too much, it requires a broad understanding of what is technically possible and what is in the market or coming around the corner. It needs smart, sharp people. But it is largely peripheral or just front end, because it rests on powerful infrastructure.

That suggests that the senior authority in matters digital in any organisation should continue to be the CIO. Whether the chief digital officer reports to the CIO, CEO or possible the CMO is a matter for the particular organisation and its culture. We came up with the CIO term in the first place to mark the top IT person’s place at the top table, following North American nomenclature. Most in these islands are still called IT director or IT manager. Some have a seat on the board, some just on the senior executive committee or whatever it is called. Some still report to the MD or even financial director. Each to his own, we say. Every organisation has an individual culture and by and large IT is so important to all of them that the top in-company IT person gets the respect and gains the clout he/she deserves.

This is going to be even more important as mobility (which is really ubiquity or 24×365 anytime anywhere) is joined by two ever faster growing streams of technology: robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT). We have a lingering science fiction view of robots as bipedal humanoids. Yielding to no one in admiration for Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina, the fact is that robotic machines come in umpteen less attractive shapes.

Suppose you could drive a forklift in a warehouse by tablet or drone-type controller? Or deliver a loaded pallet to a loading bay platform from the driver’s seat by controlling the built-in hydraulic hoist? Them’s robots, man. So are Alexa and Siri and Cortana and Google Assistant and all the rest. Just because they are virtual is irrelevant. They can perform tasks autonomously when instructed. That’s robotics.

Modern robots are based on more than on-board programming. That may be alright for paint spray arms in vehicle factories but even then, the programs have to be changed for each car model. Today, the driver is machine learning and advances all the way to full artificial intelligence. To a large degree that is ‘housed’ outside of the robotic unit, principally cloud because of the massive power and data crunching involved.

The latest instructions or modifications can be transmitted to the unit by SIM, Wi-Fi or whatever. That old science fiction plug-in cable for re-programing may come back into fashion for sheer security in dangerous or sensitive areas or tasks. We would not expect military robots to receive more than the latest encrypted instructions wirelessly. Everything else would be autonomous.

Now all of this is a far cry from an Irish SME. Yet very shortly it can be expected that start-ups and current businesses will be investing in robotics. Almost any repetitive task can be mechanised and automated. If the relevant machines can be re-programmed, that’s robotics. We do not fill milk cartons or cans of beer by hand. We have had ‘lights out’ factories for a decade and more, where the machines just get on with it and signal when something goes wrong.

Now the IoT and robotics are in many respects drawing together or at least cooperating. TechPro readers will think of the IoT as largely sensor-based for the foreseeable future although of course smart and mobile devices play a huge part. The primary purpose of the IoT in general is data collection and feeding into parent or relevant systems for analytics or alerts.

Traffic volume, wind speed, water flow or pressure — the possibilities are limited only by sensor technology or machine vision. Any moving robot, and autonomous vehicles are just that, can gain in performance from relevant data in real time. Many will depend on such data.

At a more mundane level, van deliveries, merchandising and shelf stocking in retail can all benefit from joined up systems. The van can have that robotic loader/unloader mentioned earlier, the store could have a robot shelf stocker and shelf-edge price labeller, assisted by RFID and IoT sensors and linked to the stock control systems of both retailer and suppliers. Every can of beans tracked from factory to customer is the vision. We already do it with pharmaceuticals to conform to traceability regulations. Just add it to lower value items and combine with mechanical assistance/assistants, from your local symbol group franchise to multinational chains.

With all respect to the digital people with their eyes on marketing, that whole vision is a project for CIOs. Robots and automation on foot of IoT data feeds are the PCs of the future, IT moving on from data processing to live action. The constant element is data.

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