This weekend, IBM invited me to help host a global “jam” session, pulling thousands of thinkers into a conversation about the “Internet of Things” (IoT). You can join the three-day (Oct 14-16) global event by clicking here.

If you are not yet thinking about how the IoT will affect your business, you probably should start soon. Below we cover:

  • Four sets of opportunities you will want to consider in the near term.
  • Why we think, in the long-term, IoT could transform your business in yet-unimaginable ways.

When I heard that I would be in the company of people like Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association; Bruce Anderson, general manager of IBM’s Electronics Industry; and Dr. Richard Soley, executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium, I thought, “Am I qualified?”

But, when I started to think more deeply about the challenge – trying to understand how the IoT will impact the future of organizations – I thought, “Are any of us qualified?”

Four sets of near-term opportunities
At Outthinker, we have been working increasingly with clients around the challenges of digital transformation. As companies embrace new ways to communicate and deliver value to customers, we are witnessing exciting strategic opportunities. Digital is certainly transforming how businesses organize, strategize, and perform. The IoT is pushing us further into the unknown.

In general, there are four sets of IoT opportunities you should be considering. They fall into four stages of evolution:

  1. Stage 1: Could you build devices like Progressive’s Snapshot, which captures useful information about their customers?
  2. Stage 2: Could you create “simple networks” like Google’s Nest, which allows devices inside your home to better regulate the environment, heat up before you come home, cool down when you are asleep under your covers?
  3. Stage 3: Could you create more complex networks like Apple’s HomeKit, which links the “simple networks” that control your heating, lighting and sensors, and locks into one larger network?
  4. Stage 4: Could you create the network services that enable complex networks to store data, analyze macro information, etc., in the cloud?

With between 30 billion and 50 billion devices expected to be connected to the internet in the next five years, the business opportunities represented by these four stages could be massive.

The long-term unknowable possibilities
But we believe that in the long-term, the IoT’s impact could be evolutionary. To see this, consider that until now, the dialogue of innovation and growth has sat within a paradigm of machine-to-human communication. Each of the most impactful innovations of the last 30 years – email, the internet, DNA sequencing, PCs, mobile phones, office software, GPS systems, etc. – has opened up new ways for people to get faster and more useful information from machines.

But the IoT is enabling machine-to-machine communication, pulling humans out of the center of the dialogue.

Sociologist Gerhard Emmanuel Lenski dedicated his life to understanding how societies evolve – why humans evolved from hunting tribes to agricultural communities to empires, cities, and states. His conclusion was that communication is the ultimate driver of development.

  1. At first, humans passed down knowledge through DNA, so we were relatively undifferentiated from other animals.
  2. Later, we learned to communicate with gestures and movements, and this set us on an accelerated evolutionary path.
  3. When we learned to apply signs and logic, being able to verbalize these, we further accelerated information sharing.
  4. When we developed writing, we broke the time barrier, being able to share information across generations, on cave walls and paper.

What will the world look like when the steps of communication that trigger stages of our evolution for the first time in human history become no longer about people communicating with people but with machines communicating with machines? What will happen when the human is no longer at the center of the dialogue? Could we begin entering a fifth stage of human evolution?

Surely we will dig into the near-term opportunities during the IBM Jam. But I hope we will also begin to glimpse around this corner, beyond what the Internet of Things will make possible for human-machine communication. What will the next Gerhard Emmanuel Lenski be writing about when communication has moved in a significant way beyond humans?

Please join in the IBM Jam conversation. Learn more and register here.