We're reaching the point where computers will soon be everywhere without being noticed or acknowledged. In our daily lives we're using more devices that use processors, software and connections to mobile networks – analyst house IDC has predicted there will be more than 3.1 billion by 2020 – and most are integrated into larger systems and producing new streams of data.
This is taking us into a new era of IT, the age of ubiquitous computing. The BCS has been exploring these areas in our recent whitepaper, Riding the next wave: Ubiquitous computing. We can see it is creating new business opportunities, and it's up to CIOs to take advantage of them.
At the heart of this is the Internet of Things, the widespread network of devices - such as sensors, meters and locational tags - that collect and pass on data while performing relatively simple tasks. While they provide benefits by themselves, they also feed into Big Data, adding to the supply of information that can be analysed to provide fresh insights for a business.
Some of the accompanying technologies are developing fast and moving into new areas. Cognitive computing is at an earlier stage but could be a game changer in some lines of work. The systems are more flexible than traditional computers, using algorithms to continually learn from the data they process, and deal with massive volumes of information much faster than the human brain. This will provide important support for decision-making, especially in areas demanding quick and critical decisions.
Augmented reality, which adds layers of information or visualisations to a scene, is being used with smartphones and tablets in areas such as marketing, engineering and industrial design. It also works with smart glasses, which are proving to be more than a gimmick, and the ability to use the technology hands-free is creating massive opportunities. Areas such as logistics, task management, training, navigation and retail are all ripe for augmented reality over the next few years.
3D printing is developing rapidly, combining computer aided design with a process in which materials are fused in layers to produce an object. It promises to shake up a number of industries with the benefits of rapid prototyping, increased customisation and the ability to reduce inventories.
CIOs should watch all this carefully. Many large organisations will have techies who keep an eye on developments in their field, but it's up to the CIO to assess how they relate to the business and what benefits they can provide. They need to understand the basics of the technologies, whether it is viable for them, and if it can give them an edge in their operations or going to market.
They will also have to ensure their organisations can find the people with the relevant skills. Cognitive computing will require people able to design and build the flows of information into systems. They will need a grasp of how to exploit unstructured data and the intricacies of how an organisation works. Augmented reality will require app developers to meet the niche demands of a business, along with people able to identify which processes will benefit and what information will be needed. 3D printing will need computer-savvy designers for the products, engineers for the hardware and scientists to refine the materials.
Harnessing the Internet of Things for Big Data will require people with deep mathematical skills and place new demands on the field of data science.
In some areas it may be relatively easy to acquire the skills: there are already app developers who can easily switch to catering for augmented reality, and people in many fields who have mastered design software and can support 3D printing. Organisations need to tap into the ecosystems and provide opportunities for people to adapt their abilities to the technologies.
Other skills are not in ready supply, and there could soon be fierce competition for the people who have them. In some cases there may be employees with in-house roles that provide a platform for developing new capabilities, and CIOs should work with their HR colleagues to ensure the training opportunities are in place. In others, especially in data science, they will have to reach further, going into universities or persuading graduates to refine their knowledge; and they will have to provide incentives to back it up.
We're entering the age of ubiquitous computing, and it's up to CIOs to ensure that their organisations are placed to flourish.