Gloria Spittel explains how the Internet of Things is changing how we work

Well upon us is the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or Industry 4.0) of which the Internet of Things (IoT) or machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is a star feature if not the backbone. Simply defined, IoT refers to connected devices over a network or the internet that ‘communicates’ with other technological devices and systems, and people.

While connected devices may not seem a revolutionary industrial tool, connected devices with the ability to collect data and act on it have the potential to disrupt and transform the way work is conducted in the office, and displace human labour, behaviour and even thought processes.

IoT is much more than the ‘things’ it encompasses. It is about the networking infrastructure necessary for its functioning – usually high-speed broadband and WiFi connectivity, the devices and very important sensors, and availability of cloud-based applications.

But beyond the ecosystem of connected devices and people, IoT centres on the collection of data. and its analysis in real time that’s necessary for corresponding responses and action. If the tools that are needed for the analysis of the collected data aren’t available, IoT systems will not function at their full potential.

AUTOMATION So what does IoT in the workplace look like? Often-cited examples suggest that IoT systems are instrumental in conserving energy or reducing operational costs in an office building.

Examples include ordering supplies like ink for printers (where sensors inside the printers detect low supplies and submit orders directly to suppliers), and in the manufacturing and logistics industries where IoT has numerous functionalities.

What this boils down to is more automation, thereby freeing human time, and conserving and redistributing resources. The redistribution of resources and human time could effectively be channelled into the development of new revenue streams, and strategic direction for an organisation.

UNEMPLOYMENT But does more automation also mean unemployment?

Perhaps the Fourth Industrial Revolution may lead to unemployment in industries such as manufacturing and logistics as automated systems replace manual labour. Indeed, automated services such as those described in the example of the printers may displace workers who were responsible for maintaining office supplies.

As much as IoT has the potential to offer humans the time and space to reach higher goals, it could also take away jobs – especially low-skilled jobs.

APPLICABILITY Moreover, there is some doubt as to whether IoT is applicable across all industries and the world. Certainly, IoT may pose technical difficulties both with infrastructure and in the eventual displacement of human labour in developing and emerging economies. Governments of such nations can also be sidetracked in their pursuit of installing infrastructure to support IoT at the expense of other social development policies.

But wherever IoT is employed, it will drastically change the way we work – it may even have a lasting effect by defining how work is completed for years to come.

For instance, smart wearables and connected devices will make optimal use of office space by monitoring human movements, and how rooms and utilities are used. The collection and subsequent analysis of data of these factors will help improve efficiency as far as the utilisation of office space is concerned. This leads to cost savings and creates more flexibility.

CHARACTERISTICS Flexibility and mobility are key characteristics of the approaching era of work. Employees will use their own digital devices to access company information and remote IoT devices, which can lead to higher productivity and increased efficiency for the company – and probably more stress for the connected worker.

IoT also has technical drawbacks in addition to infrastructure requirements – security! More than ever, once a device is connected and is collecting and analysing data, it becomes hot property for industrial espionage and sabotage.

Throw in the monitoring of human behaviour in the workplace, home and everywhere else, and personal data is sacrificed for convenience.

Worryingly, there’s no telling how personal and company data can be misused once acquired by conspiring minds.

That said, the IT security industry continues to churn out solutions that would protect IoT systems.

There is one other negative attribute to IoT (other than potential unemployment), which is the reliance on heavy infrastructure expenditure at the state and company levels. It’s at a very personal level – the human level.

How will IoT affect our thought processes once mundane tasks like switching on the coffee machine are carried out automatically or the active conscious thought of picking a route to avoid traffic is replaced by smart mapping systems in communication with your vehicle?

Regardless of claims that IoT systems will offer more time and thereby space for increased human creativity and productivity, it’s hard not to imagine a world in which the human being is an eternal passenger and emitter of data!