Teaming Up for IoT Success

In the Internet-of-things era, having a strategic approach to talent can set firms apart.



Michael Lynch is a senior client partner and Kevin Anderson is a principal in Korn Ferry’s Global Technology practice.

“The Internet of things” is the buzzword of the day; it’s nearly as hyped as “the Internet” was in the 1990s. And there’s certainly a lot to buzz about. The technology that allows ordinary parts and products to share information and work together digitally is creating tremendous new opportunities in manufacturing, infrastructure, security, finance, entertainment, and just about every other business sector.

So it’s hardly a surprise that in offices and boardrooms everywhere, corporate leaders are demanding the same thing from their subordinates: Create a world-shattering IoT-connected product! While this mantra may be an effective approach for start-ups, it probably won’t work for established businesses that need a consistent stream of incremental improvements to drive growth. We at Korn Ferry believe the secret sauce to IoT innovation isn’t technology itself, it’s having teams of smart, agile and risk-taking talent that can use it. Here are three ways companies have set up their talent to get the most out of the Internet of things. 

Collaborate with customers to enable new business models

“Customer needs are driving development of IoT technologies, not the other way around,” says Tom Bianculli, chief technology officer of Zebra Technologies. Back in the 1980s and ’90s Zebra was best known for making barcode printers and labels, making it easier for firms to keep track of goods. Zebra still has those, but thanks to listening to and partnering with its customers, the firm now develops a host of products that are essential to delivering IoT-enabled applications, such as fancy live-action graphics during football games and real-time data for retailers. Of course, to support such an approach you need a certain type of employee who can exchange ideas with customers, rather than just sell them something. “We’ve always been a collaborative group and naturally attract lateral thinkers who work across disciplines to help businesses improve workflows, provide better service, and grow faster,” says Zebra’s CEO, Anders Gustafsson.

Become a trusted advisor of IoT technologies

Manufacturers typically take product direction from customers, but with development cycles lasting two to three years, semiconductor manufacturer GlobalFoundries discovered that it can’t anticipate customer needs so far in advance. So the firm turned its business strategy around; now it guides customers on which IoT solutions will fit them best. “IoT is so complicated, we’ve decided to develop solutions in a proactive manner and act as trusted advisors to our customers,” says Gregg Bartlett, a senior vice president at GlobalFoundaries.

This new approach required GlobalFoundries to rethink its own talent and organization. Bartlett set up a product management function and staffed it with people deep in end-market dynamics, customer needs, product management, and manufacturing processes. He also organized this group to align with the manufacturing technology teams. “I need people who know a lot about the entire value chain and can sit with a customer to explore manufacturing trade-offs. These are unique people who can connect the dots and quickly create unique solutions,” he says.

Create something new and different

Aerospace firm Airbus Group may be best known for building airplanes, but it’s also imagining new business opportunities through scientific innovation. The company established the A3 innovation center in Silicon Valley and hired former Google executive Paul Eremenko as the inaugural CEO. The center’s lofty goal is to develop IoT-enabled products and components that “define the future of flight.”

“We focus on solving very specific problems that reside at the intersection of compelling use case and fundamental scientific or technical insight,” says Eremenko, who is now chief technology officer for all of Airbus. A key tenet of this approach is the idea that “innovation under extreme pressure” generally produces better outcomes. Eremenko creates urgency by establishing tight deadlines. This environment allows his program managers to focus on results, clearly see future business potential, and “fail fast” without consequence. A3 has an open innovation ecosystem that allows the products to become widely known and enables Airbus to capture a best-in-class mind-set. The managers themselves have deep technical and business skills and are comfortable with risk, the very traits that drive founders of Silicon Valley start-ups.

What all this means

Taking full advantage of IoT will require extraordinary people with broad experiences and high learning agility. These people understand issues from multiple viewpoints and have the business and technical depth to connect the dots and create something extraordinary. For years, we have sought experts with deep knowledge of specific technologies or business models—however, such niche skills may not mesh well in the IoT world, where the technical solution is an architecture of multiple technologies integrated in innovative ways. Companies that organize and hire strategically will have the upper hand in this emerging era.