IoT: Knowing Your Business, Not its Shadow

Appian Contributor
April 30, 2019

Plato the CaveMany years ago, when I was a young student of philosophy, I was presented with Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". And like a lot of students, it was something that fascinated me and that I've used since, although probably not in the way it was intended (which was really about education). If you don't know the allegory of the cave, it's roughly as follows. Imagine some people are shackled in a cave and this is all they've ever known. Behind them are people or puppets that are lit from behind with fire but can never be directly seen by the cave people. The shadows are all the cave people have ever known and so they are their reality. The cave people don't know that they're shadows. The lesson here is that we don't always know what reality is -- and we don't always know what we don't know.

For most of human history, we have had a very physical connection with our world, even up to the Age of Agriculture. We counted things. We counted the rows we planted. We calculated the yield of the ore in making knives. We knew the price of our handiwork at market. In the next era, the Industrial Age, we created processes for making things in a repeatable way. Now, we not only counted things, but we created abstract representations of those things using statistics and graphs. For the first time, an important part of the workforce could talk about the things of their business ñ workers and widgets, conveyors and customers ñ without having actually seen any of those things. In the next era, the Information Age, we abstracted things yet again, in some cases completely disconnecting the representation from any actual thing. We had bank accounts (post Gold Standard) and actuarial science and scenario planning. So, for each era there's been an accompanying level of abstraction. There is a problem with that. Abstraction is the shadow. It's not the real thing. No matter how good the math or tuned the neural net, abstractions are not the real thing. And not only are the shadows not the real things, but by its nature, you don't know what you don't know.

Enter the Internet of Things.

For the first time, we now have the technology to count and "touch" every physical thing in our businesses. Millions of things. That thing could be a truck, or a food ingredient or a stamping process -- and with senses beyond what humans have. No longer do we need to estimate or approximate or deduce what something is, or whether it's moving or melting. We can now be certain. Of course, you also want to know things about those things--the abstractions. You still want to estimate when you'll run out of sprockets, and the financial markets still want to know how much you'll grow next quarter.

Think about your business. Unless your business is an e-bank, you have things. Lots of things. Those things could be customers or products or factories or trucks. The question is: can you see and touch those things, or are you looking at their shadows?

Connect all your things to the Appian platform and transform your business.

Tahl Milburn

Executive Advisor