The Trial, the whole Trial, and nothing but the Trial

Picture the situation: you’ve just been tasked with delivering a presentation on the Internet Of Things to a group of senior managers. To speak to non-technical people, you’ve got to find a way of successfully abstracting the concept of how sensors produce data to give insight on your assets.

Fine. Let’s put together some diagrams, stock photography with creative glitzy digital content, keep the bullet points to a minimum and tie it all together with a story. But getting the message across and retained is tricky, because the fanciful world of new and emerging technology lacks relevance to most business: it’s too abstract, too hard to understand its fit.

This is why the absolute cornerstone of innovation is the trial. The evidence, demonstrable benefit and de-risked insights not only lay the groundwork for a project to deliver, they also impress upon your wider stakeholders what the technology can do.

Years ago, I was working on a deployment of a computer system at a number of used car dealerships. I was given an early Kodak digital camera (remember those! One a lot like this) and the task of photographing the vehicle stock outside. The photos had to be downloaded off the camera and then uploaded to a server, with the photo filename renamed to match the car’s registration number.

It was a little tedious, until I thought about coding a Windows application to handle it. But the idea wasn’t an easy sell – I couldn’t articulate the benefits to my colleagues other than the effort it would save me – so I had to create a proof of concept. Kodak, in their wisedom back then, allowed you to programmatically collect photos from a camera when connected via USB, so I used that to get the photos, pulled a stock list of registration numbers to allow users to match them up, and my demo was set.

PhotoStock, as I’d dubbed it (nothing to do with stock photography online!), worked great and made an otherwise time-consuming and complicated job for non-technical users much easier. We developed it further, sold it to our customer after a demonstration and then sold it to others too. But what the exercise taught me is the importance of the art of the possible; the idea or concept as described wasn’t enough. For the idea to succeed, it needed to be real and proven.

Last week, I attended Capgemini’s Innovation Unleashed event where we saw a presentation from the amazing Samantha Payne, co-founder of Open Bionics. They created the incredible Hero Arm, a 3D-printed bionic arm designed for children. Their startup story was typical of many; lots of prototypes, so-called experts telling them it would never work.

openbionics-15-2-1
The amazing Hero Arm, by Bristol-based Open Bionics

Samantha explained that their breakthrough came when winning a Disney Accelerator prize. This involved many weeks in a cramped home in Los Angeles working on their presentation. Yet Samantha insisted they build the arm instead of talking about it. She felt that just pitching the idea wouldn’t guarantee success, so in two weeks and lots of caffeinated drinks, they 3D-printed a prototype and got their first bionic arm working. The team went on to win the pitch.

A truly inspiring example. Yet it’s more than just about tangible things; the trial itself needs some purpose. Set objectives carefully with your sponsor, identify what insights you might wish to learn, and then measure the outcomes as the trial unfolds. I find that these two actions are often missing from others’ innovation processes. How do you know if your trial has been a success?

So to revisit our fictitious Internet Of Things presentation in front of those senior managers, instead of talking about sensors and big data, you would talk about a business challenge and how you proved you solved it by running a trial. Your trial demonstrated the savings, insight and improvement in customer service, and oh – by the way – it uses a technology methodology known as the Internet Of Things. That way, your audience will forever associate the tech with solving a problem. And what better way to reinforce the message than that?

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