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25 January 2019

HCL talks IoT transformation and risks for enterprise adoption

HCL Technologies is in the business of digital transformation, and by the sounds of things, business is good. The Indian firm sells these services to enterprises looking to overhaul, and unsurprisingly, a lot of those services have IoT elements. We spoke to Sukamal Banerjee, HCL’s Head of IoT, to get a rundown of how the venerable company had evolved and adopted new connected technologies and processes, as part of its $9bn and 117,000-person operation.

Banerjee explained that HCL had identified the IoT opportunity quite early on, before the term was being banded about by just about every technology PR intern. He said that the two main initial focuses were industrial and medical, and that HCL was offering its Smart Services and Smart Products offerings that had incorporated elements of the IoT. To this end, Banerjee stressed that the IoT wasn’t exactly new for HCL, rather that it was an evolution, and he reckons that HCL’s dedicated IoT unit, established in 2015, must have been one of the first among HCL’s peers.

As for the evolution of the market, Banerjee said that like any opportunity, there was a reasonable amount of hype surrounding the IoT, and that it definitely took some much longer than expected to implement “the IoT.” Banerjee said that he has seen a lot of success in organizations that adopted the “digital transformation of the asset value chain,” harnessing their available data and working out how to monetize it.

But Banerjee did stress that an amount of realism is needed. He said that many conversations talk about using the IoT to drive a business benefit, but to this end, he stressed that if you can’t actually find such a benefit to focus on, then your IoT project isn’t going anywhere.

However, the overall momentum of the market is encouraging, according to Banerjee. For HCL, he said that the IoT projects were certainly profitable, but said that he couldn’t disclose the financial performance here. The company pursues markets proactively, but has little interest in the consumer market. Banerjee noted that Retail and CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) are very interested in IoT opportunities.

HCL’s IoT customers are typically in manufacturing, healthcare, energy, mining, transport and logistics, or smart cities. Banerjee said the majority were in the Global 2000, with aerospace, medical devices, and pharmaceutical standout performers. While some of its partners do bring in smaller clients, HCL is focused on enterprise-scale customers.

This brought us on to a discussion of the pace of the IoT market. We asked if the slower than anticipated collective growth was due to a demand or supply-side problem. Banerjee said that there was clearly lots of demand, as evinced by the number of customers showing interest, but clarified that a lot of this demand was latent, and that providers like HCL often have to give shape to that demand – showing customers what they actually need, rather than just what they think they want.

On the supply side of things, Banerjee said that the issue is more of an operational challenge than a strategic issue, meaning that a supplier needs to work out how to hawk IoT products or services, rather than evaluate if it needs to. To this end, HCL thinks that the IoT is an ecosystem play, and that partnering is key as you can’t do everything in-house.

As such, developing the ecosystem is important for everyone involved. Domain knowledge can end up being very nuanced or niche, and so companies will have to collaborate in order to share that collective wisdom. New communication protocols are a good example of this, according to Banerjee.

We asked about the risks for a company like HCL, when it comes to IoT adoption. Banerjee said that security was perhaps the most pressing, or more the management of security, in that it’s a collective effort and not a single point of failure. Building on that, another risk is the instability of evolving technologies, in that changes can introduce a lot of headaches up the stack.

But perhaps most pressing is the tendency to focus on a business outcome at the expense of the overall IoT project – such that if the outcome is not met, the project is often considered a failure, despite it potentially having a net benefit. Tempering expectations are therefore important, especially as these projects take place over a 5-year scale, where there won’t be radical changes – rather gradual evolutions. He expects that nothing is going to appear in the next three to five years that is going to revolutionize IoT adoptions, rather that they will only accelerate it. Greater standardization could also be problematic for legacy systems too, warned Banerjee.