June/July 2014

In the mid to late 90s the Internet became all the rage. On a whole, corporations didn’t really understand how to use Websites, but digital savvy leaders emerged, preaching the need to be part of the digital revolution. In response, corporate executives recognized they must do something to prepare for this great buzz, so they set aside special teams to lead the challenge. Often labeled “ebusiness” or “digital business,” these cross-functional teams were often part information technology, part marketing, and part supply chain. Some focused on B2B (business-to-business) improvements, while others faced the broad market of consumers.

Just as companies started to feel comfortable with this shift, along came the proliferation of personal mobile devices. Most shaped like a rectangle that could fit in your pocket, these “phones” began to change the “ebusiness” strategy into the late 2000s. What was once static and stationary became dynamic and mobile. Information had to begin to flow to where a person was and be transformed into consumable information on a 3-in. screen. The mobile era was upon us. “Digital” teams got a boost of energy again.

After a decade or so of “special attention” these “e-business” teams have, for the most part, been reintegrated into the standard functions of a corporation. What was once something unique is now fairly standard. “E-Business” has become the business.

The “Connected Business” Era
Although IoT (Internet of Things), IoE (Internet of Everything), M2M, and the likes are just now becoming common vernacular around management offices, the shift has been occurring for quite some time. Visionary engineering professionals have been embedding electronics and complex computer systems into products for more than 20 years. Slowly, office space requests for mechanical engineers, who were once the darling of product development suites, have been outpaced by computer, electrical, and systems engineers in most companies. Now many products are more code than they are carbon.

Product digitization has gotten a boost in that last few years as these embedded electronics have started to connect to the Internet. Larger products like aircraft engines, cars, and expensive military equipment have been connecting onboard systems with off board computers in an asynchronous (or semi-synchronous) fashion for a few decades. Futurists and strategists have helped to increase the need for attention by predicting the rate at which general consumer products will connect and how this connection will make your life smarter.

Much like the “e-business” era of the 1990s, future focused corporate leaders have been responding to these predictions by assembling special teams to concentrate on their “connected products.” Often housed in the engineering division, these teams likely focus on product architecture adjustments that are necessary to allow their offerings to remain relevant in the connected era. At times this group can include embedded electronics professionals, technical communication experts, IT representatives, digital marketing gurus, and data scientists.

More mature connected teams may have found a home reporting to a cross-functional connected committee, a new business unit leader, or even the emerging “chief connected officer.” The more expansive organizational structures allow teams to focus beyond just the product to determine changes in brand experience, operational processes, and entirely new business models.

New to many companies just a few years ago, this connected movement is starting to become commonplace for some companies and industries. Similar to “ebusiness,” will “connected business” just become “The Business?”

Role of Centralized “Connected” Team
Companies are founded based on an entrepreneur’s defined corporate strategy. Sometimes these are written, and other times they are sketched on a napkin.

The corporate strategy outlines “the business in which the organization chooses to compete.” Industry or cross industry mega trends, like the rise of the Internet, or more recently the increase of connected products, have the ability to impact the firm’s corporate strategy.

Board of directors and C-Level leaders understand that when corporate strategies shift, often the leaders at the helm of the company must also change. It is rare in a company’s history for it to significantly alter its corporate strategy. One catalyst for this can be major disruptive trends or platforms for disruptive innovation.

In the 1990s, the Internet was absolutely one of these types of disruptive innovations. It introduced a technology-inspired platform for change that allowed new entrants into established markets, created new channels to customers, and reshaped capital investment paradigms. Savvy CEOs didn’t only start one off/ centralized “e-business” teams to study a new market trend. They also did this to incubate a new group of corporate leaders. Leaders who would learn to work to support a potential “new corporate strategy.” For some companies that choose to shift their business or launch entirely new business lines, this incubation proved very important. ebusiness leaders became THE business leaders.

“Connected” is really another technologically inspired platform for innovation. The “Internet of Things” is on the path to have even more disruptive effects than the Internet in the late ’90s. So once again corporate leaders need to ask themselves, “What is the real role of the “Connected Team?” Should CEOs treat connected teams as simple extensions to engineering or IT, or is the opportunity much bigger?

Should the connected team really be the “Connected Business Team” or the “C-Business Team?” Should this group be made up of the high-potential next business leader?

Recognizing the Change Pattern
After all, these “special project/ incubator” teams are really a method to protect innovation and today’s core business. Operational processes are formed to stomp out risk and maximize return. To properly explore new ideas and businesses, a safe haven must be formed that gives the idea space to grow without being challenged by the current state/operational culture.

By centralizing the “connected program” into a single team, corporate leaders have a nice opportunity to hedge for the future while preparing for this inevitable technological shift. Much like the ebusiness team, which resulted in both short term answers for the “Internet” disruption, as well as long-term leaders for a new age of business. Connected programs can be used to ensure connected products are introduced on time, while executives till fertile ground for the next corporate leader. At the end of the day, boards of directors must decide if they believe that connected products just may become THE core product, connected consumers just become THE consumer, and the connected world just becomes THE world. If so, the connected leader might just well become THE leader for the future company.

Gregg Garrett leads a team that advises clients on how to harness innovation in the connected economy as CEO and president of CGS Advisors. He is adjunct faculty and lectures at several universities and contributes to Connected World. Previously, he served as chief strategy roles at Volkswagen Group of America and Deutsche Telekom in North America. He can be reached at greggory.garrett@cgsadvisors.com

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