Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends For 2016

Susan Galer

Emerging technologies are poised to break out and disrupt business models in 2016. According to research firm Gartner, unprecedented connectivity between a plethora of devices tapping intelligence from smart machines will drive this dramatic transformation. The results include dazzling user experiences and business advances. David W. Cearley, vice president and Gartner Fellow, said the shift to digital business is the fundamental theme behind next year’s top technology trends. During a recent Gartner webinar, he identified three overarching topics within the top 10 trends supporting this move: the physical and virtual worlds merge, intelligence everywhere, and all applications become cloud-centric.

“Digital business is evolving to become algorithmic business, which focuses on action,” said Cearley. “We’re encapsulating data from activities into algorithms, creating more smart and intelligent systems as part of the entire digital business.”

Gartner’s top 10 trends for 2016

  1. Device mesh is the expanding, pervasive technology underpinning that delivers frictionless, fluid, dynamic connections involving people, things, and businesses whether you’re with a customer, working in a warehouse or an oil field, shopping in a retail store, eating at a restaurant, watching the game, or driving in your car. “Smartwatches are the tip of the iceberg,” said Cearley. “Many of these technologies are very targeted so you need to think about certain opportunities like notifications, micro-interactions, and different levels of control or context that’s provided to the user such as employee productivity with authentication mechanisms or hands-free production.” As one example of the growth of augmented and virtual reality, Gartner predicted head-mounted displays will dramatically increase from 260,000 unit shipments in 2015 to 2 million units next year and 25 million units by 2019.
  1. Ambient user experience seamlessly blends the physical and virtual, adapting contextual information including user actions, environmental sensors on available devices, historical data, and capabilities from applications. Cearley said this will evolve to a unified multi-sensory experience. “Application design has to think outside-in starting with the user. You’re designing for the personal cloud that exists for the user – their devices and scenarios that change throughout the day.”
  1. 3D printing using advanced, multiple materials will create high-value innovation opportunities in industries like pharmaceuticals, life science (prosthetics and skin), electronics, food, and industrial manufacturing.
  1. Information of everything will begin to make data meaningful to create smart machines that store, collect, and share valuable, actionable knowledge sources across the business ecosystem.
  1. Advanced machine learning uses new types of models to infuse greater intelligence into systems. This is the next step in analytics, functioning as the “brain” of autonomous, smart machines able to learn, act, and adapt behavior.
  1. Autonomous agents and things are on the rise creating new business opportunities. This includes robots, drones, driverless vehicles, virtual customer and personal assistants, smart appliances and tools, smart security and operations, and smart enterprise apps.
  1. Adaptive security architecture goes beyond blocking the company’s virtual perimeter to building risk mitigation into the system on a continuous basis using advanced behavioral and entity analytics that predict, prevent, investigate, contain, and remediate incidents.
  1. Advanced systems architecture supports smart machines, in which specialized appliances can dramatically scale connections, turbo-charging innovations like facial recognition and cognitive learning.
  1. Mesh app and service architecture emerges as a unified model to build microservices linked together into applications delivered across devices in the digital mesh. “There’s a significant learning curve and discipline required for this,” cautioned Cearley. “It’s not for everyone today but is one of the hottest topics.”
  1. Internet of Things architecture and platform has to be built so all the components are linked together including analytics, orchestration, data, an integration layer, aggregated device management, gateways, and the user interface.

The IoT, Industry 4.0, and the networked economy may have more impact on the future of your business than anything else on earth. To learn why this is true, listen to expert research on Myth-Busting: The Networked Economy.


Transform Or Die: What Will You Do In The Digital Economy?

Scott Feldman and Puneet Suppal

By now, most executives are keenly aware that the digital economy can be either an opportunity or a threat. The question is not whether they should engage their business in it. Rather, it’s how to unleash the power of digital technology while maintaining a healthy business, leveraging existing IT investments, and innovating without disrupting themselves.

Yet most of those executives are shying away Businesspeople in a Meeting --- Image by © Monalyn Gracia/Corbisfrom such a challenge. According to a recent study by MIT Sloan and Capgemini, only 15% of CEOs are executing a digital strategy, even though 90% agree that the digital economy will impact their industry. As these businesses ignore this reality, early adopters of digital transformation are achieving 9% higher revenue creation, 26% greater impact on profitability, and 12% more market valuation.

Why aren’t more leaders willing to transform their business and seize the opportunity of our hyperconnected world? The answer is as simple as human nature. Innately, humans are uncomfortable with the notion of change. We even find comfort in stability and predictability. Unfortunately, the digital economy is none of these – it’s fast and always evolving.

Digital transformation is no longer an option – it’s the imperative

At this moment, we are witnessing an explosion of connections, data, and innovations. And even though this hyperconnectivity has changed the game, customers are radically changing the rules – demanding simple, seamless, and personalized experiences at every touch point.

Billions of people are using social and digital communities to provide services, share insights, and engage in commerce. All the while, new channels for engaging with customers are created, and new ways for making better use of resources are emerging. It is these communities that allow companies to not only give customers what they want, but also align efforts across the business network to maximize value potential.

To seize the opportunities ahead, businesses must go beyond sensors, Big Data, analytics, and social media. More important, they need to reinvent themselves in a manner that is compatible with an increasingly digital world and its inhabitants (a.k.a. your consumers).

Here are a few companies that understand the importance of digital transformation – and are reaping the rewards:

  1. Under Armour:  No longer is this widely popular athletic brand just selling shoes and apparel. They are connecting 38 million people on a digital platform. By focusing on this services side of the business, Under Armour is poised to become a lifestyle advisor and health consultant, using his product side as the enabler.
  1. Port of Hamburg: Europe’s second-largest port is keeping carrier trucks and ships productive around the clock. By fusing facility, weather, and traffic conditions with vehicle availability and shipment schedules, the Port increased container handling capacity by 178% without expanding its physical space.
  1. Haier Asia: This top-ranking multinational consumer electronics and home appliances company decided to disrupt itself before someone else did. The company used a two-prong approach to digital transformation to create a service-based model to seize the potential of changing consumer behaviors and accelerate product development. 
  1. Uber: This startup darling is more than just a taxi service. It is transforming how urban logistics operates through a technology trifecta: Big Data, cloud, and mobile.
  1. American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO): Even nonprofits can benefit from digital transformation. ASCO is transforming care for cancer patients worldwide by consolidating patient information with its CancerLinQ. By unlocking knowledge and value from the 97% of cancer patients who are not involved in clinical trials, healthcare providers can drive better, more data-driven decision making and outcomes.

It’s time to take action 

During the SAP Executive Technology Summit at SAP TechEd on October 19–20, an elite group of CIOs, CTOs, and corporate executives will gather to discuss the challenges of digital transformation and how they can solve them. With the freedom of open, candid, and interactive discussions led by SAP Board Members and senior technology leadership, delegates will exchange ideas on how to get on the right path while leveraging their existing technology infrastructure.

Stay tuned for exclusive insights from this invitation-only event in our next blog!
Scott Feldman is Global Head of the SAP HANA Customer Community at SAP. Connect with him on Twitter @sfeldman0.

Puneet Suppal drives Solution Strategy and Adoption (Customer Innovation & IoT) at SAP Labs. Connect with him on Twitter @puneetsuppal.



About Scott Feldman and Puneet Suppal

Scott Feldman is the Head of SAP HANA International Customer Community. Puneet Suppal is the Customer Co-Innovation & Solution Adoption Executive at SAP.

What Is Digital Transformation?

Andreas Schmitz

Achieving quantum leaps through disruption and using data in new contexts, in ways designed for more than just Generation Y — indeed, the digital transformation affects us all. It’s time for a detailed look at its key aspects.

Data finding its way into new settings

Archiving all of a company’s internal information until the end of time is generally a good idea, as it gives the boss the security that nothing will be lost. Meanwhile, enabling him or her to create bar graphs and pie charts based on sales trends – preferably in real time, of course – is even better.

But the best scenario of all is when the boss can incorporate data from external sources. All of a sudden, information on factors as seemingly mundane as the weather start helping to improve interpretations of fluctuations in sales and to make precise modifications to the company’s offerings. When the gusts of autumn begin to blow, for example, energy providers scale back solar production and crank up their windmills. Here, external data provides a foundation for processes and decisions that were previously unattainable.

Quantum leaps possible through disruption

While these advancements involve changes in existing workflows, there are also much more radical approaches that eschew conventional structures entirely.

“The aggressive use of data is transforming business models, facilitating new products and services, creating new processes, generating greater utility, and ushering in a new culture of management,” states Professor Walter Brenner of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, regarding the effects of digitalization.

Harnessing these benefits requires the application of innovative information and communication technology, especially the kind termed “disruptive.” A complete departure from existing structures may not necessarily be the actual goal, but it can occur as a consequence of this process.

Having had to contend with “only” one new technology at a time in the past, be it PCs, SAP software, SQL databases, or the Internet itself, companies are now facing an array of concurrent topics, such as the Internet of Things, social media, third-generation e-business, and tablets and smartphones. Professor Brenner thus believes that every good — and perhaps disruptive — idea can result in a “quantum leap in terms of data.”

Products and services shaped by customers

It has already been nearly seven years since the release of an app that enables customers to order and pay for taxis. Initially introduced in Berlin, Germany, mytaxi makes it possible to avoid waiting on hold for the next phone representative and pay by credit card while giving drivers greater independence from taxi dispatch centers. In addition, analyses of user data can lead to the creation of new services, such as for people who consistently order taxis at around the same time of day.

“Successful models focus on providing utility to the customer,” Professor Brenner explains. “In the beginning, at least, everything else is secondary.”

In this regard, the private taxi agency Uber is a fair bit more radical. It bypasses the entire taxi industry and hires private individuals interested in making themselves and their vehicles available for rides on the Uber platform. Similarly, Airbnb runs a platform travelers can use to book private accommodations instead of hotel rooms.

Long-established companies are also undergoing profound changes. The German publishing house Axel Springer SE, for instance, has acquired a number of startups, launched an online dating platform, and released an app with which users can collect points at retail. Chairman and CEO Matthias Döpfner also has an interest in getting the company’s newspapers and other periodicals back into the black based on payment models, of course, but these endeavors are somewhat at odds with the traditional notion of publishing houses being involved solely in publishing.

The impact of digitalization transcends Generation Y

Digitalization is effecting changes in nearly every industry. Retailers will likely have no choice but to integrate their sales channels into an omnichannel approach. Seeking to make their data services as attractive as possible, BMW, Mercedes, and Audi have joined forces to purchase the digital map service HERE. Mechanical engineering companies are outfitting their equipment with sensors to reduce downtime and achieve further product improvements.

“The specific potential and risks at hand determine how and by what means each individual company approaches the subject of digitalization,” Professor Brenner reveals. The resulting services will ultimately benefit every customer – not just those belonging to Generation Y, who present a certain basic affinity for digital methods.

“Think of cars that notify the service center when their brakes or drive belts need to be replaced, offer parking assistance, or even handle parking for you,” Brenner offers. “This can be a big help to elderly people in particular.”

Chief digital officers: team members, not miracle workers

Making the transition to the digital future is something that involves not only a CEO or a head of marketing or IT, but the entire company. Though these individuals do play an important role as proponents of digital models, it also takes more than just a chief digital officer alone.

For Professor Brenner, appointing a single person to the board of a DAX company to oversee digitalization is basically absurd. “Unless you’re talking about Da Vinci or Leibnitz born again, nobody could handle such a task,” he states.

In Brenner’s view, this is a topic for each and every department, and responsibilities should be assigned much like on a soccer field: “You’ve got a coach and the players – and the fans, as well, who are more or less what it’s all about.”

Here, the CIO neither competes with the CDO nor assumes an elevated position in the process of digital transformation. Implementing new databases like SAP HANA or Hadoop, leveraging sensor data in both technical and commercially viable ways, these are the tasks CIOs will face going forward.

“There are some fantastic jobs out there,” Brenner affirms.

Want more insight on managing digital transformation? See Three Keys To Winning In A World Of Disruption.

Image via Shutterstock


Andreas Schmitz

About Andreas Schmitz

Andreas Schmitz is a Freelance Journalist for SAP, covering a wide range of topics from big data to Internet of Things, HR, business innovation and mobile.

Customer Experience: OmniChannel. OmniNow. OmniWow.

Jamie Anderson, Volker Hildebrand, Lori Mitchell-Keller, and Stephanie Overby

The lines between the digital and physical customer experience today are largely artificial. Customers shop in retail stores with their devices at the ready. They expect online-like personalization and recommendations in the aisles. They’re looking for instant gratification and better sensory experiences from digital channels. It’s an omnichannel world and companies must figure out how to live in it: delivering a superior customer experience regardless of the entry point.

Luxury fashion brand Rebecca Minkoff, for example, opened its first three retail stores with the intent of taking customers’ best online experiences and bringing them to life. “In the past, you had this brick-and-mortar experience, and you had the online experience,” says company president Uri Minkoff. “There were such great advantages and efficiencies that emerged with shopping online. You could get recommendations, see how something should be styled, create wish lists, access user-generated content. In the store, it was still just you and the product, and maybe a sales associate. But [unlike online] you had all five of your senses.”

Rebecca Minkoff’s new stores still stimulate those senses while incorporating some of the intelligence that online channels typically bring to bear. Each store features a large interactive screen at the entrance, where customers can browse products or order a beverage. Shoppers can interact with salespeople or they can make purchases on a mobile app without ever talking to a soul. Inside a fitting room, RFID-tagged merchandise is displayed on an interactive mirror, where customers can request new sizes or the designer’s recommended coordinates (a real-life recommendation engine).

The company has found that 30% of women ask for additional items based on the recommendations. It has also sold three times more of its new ready-to-wear line than it anticipated. “We were an accessories-dominant brand,” says Minkoff. “But we’ve been able to build this direct relationship with our customers, helping them with outfit completers and also getting a better sense of what they want based on what’s actually happening in our fitting rooms.”

Each piece of technology adds to the experience while capturing the details. Rebecca Minkoff’s integrated systems can remember a customer’s previous visits and preferred colors and sizes, and can enable associates to set up a fitting room with appropriate garments. On the back end, the company gets the kind of visibility into in-store conversions once possible only in digital transactions. “The technology gives us the ability to create the kind of experience each customer wants. She can shop anonymously or be treated like a VIP,” says Minkoff.


Build Around a Big Idea

Rebecca Minkoff’s approach is a bellwether. It’s not enough simply to provide continuity or consistency from one channel to another. Customers don’t think in terms of channels, and neither should companies. Rather, it’s about defining the overarching experience you want to deliver to customers and then building the appropriate offline and online elements to achieve that intended outcome.

As more goods and even services are commoditized, companies must compete on the experiences they create (see The ROI of Customer Experience). That means coming up with a big idea that drives the design of the customer experience. “Every great experience needs to have a theme,” says Joe Pine, consultant and coauthor of The Experience Economy and Infinite Possibility: Creating Customer Value on the Digital Frontier. “That’s the organizing principle of the experience. It’s how you decide what’s in and what’s out.”

For example, Rebecca Minkoff serves as an image consultant to its Millennial customers, who expect personalization, recognition, and tech innovation, using a mix of online and offline techniques. To stand apart, companies must come up with their own unifying idea and then integrate data and systems, rework organizational models, and rethink key strategic metrics and employee incentives in order to integrate the physical and digital worlds around that idea.

Here are some examples of companies that have created a theme-driven experience using online and offline elements.

Nespresso: Imparting a Sense of Luxury

At the most basic level, Nespresso is a manufacturer of coffee and coffee machines. But the company has successfully turned what it sells and how it sells it into a very specific type of experience. Nespresso strives to impart a feeling of quality, exclusivity, even luxury in a host of ways.

sap_Q316_digital_double_feature3_images2The company has created the Nespresso Club, which maintains direct relationships with thousands of customers. Its customer service centers are staffed by 1,000 highly trained coffee experts who don’t just push products but offer advice and guidance as a sommelier might do with wine. Its 450 retail stores (up from just one Parisian in 2000) are called boutiques; the largely inventory-free showrooms are built around tasting and learning.

Online, the focus is on efficiency and service. Customers who prefer digital interactions can order through the web site or mobile app, which offers the option of courier delivery within a two-hour window. The company also recently introduced a Bluetooth-enabled coffee machine, which when paired with a smartphone app, can track a customer’s usage, simplify machine maintenance, and as Wired pointed out, enable remote brewing.

Success didn’t happen overnight, but today Nespresso is one of Nestlé’s fastest growing and most profitable brands, according to Bloomberg.

QVC: Using Online to Complement the Experience

The theme that has driven television-shopping giant QVC’s customer experience for decades has been “inspiration and entertainment.” Traditionally that was delivered through the joy of spontaneous discovery while watching the channel.

Matching that experience online has been difficult, however. At a digital retail conference in 2015, QVC’s CEO explained that in the past the company had failed to deliver the same rich interactions online that it had developed with its TV audiences, according to Total Retail. So the company decided to rethink its use of digital tools to focus on complementing the experience it delivers through TV screens, according to RetailWire.

For example, after enticing TV viewers with products, QVC introduces the next step in the buying journey—“impulse to buy”—in which viewers are spurred on with televised countdown clocks or limited merchandise availability. Online, the company has been experimenting with second-screen content (for instance, recipes that compliment a cooking product being sold on TV) to further propel purchases. The QVC app features the same item that is on-air along with a prompt that reveals all the items featured on TV in recent hours. On Apple devices equipped with Touch ID, customers can check out in less than 10 seconds with the fingerprint-enabled “speed buy” button. The third phase—“purchase and receive”—is complemented by a simple and reliable online browsing and purchasing platform. The last stage—“own and enjoy”—is accompanied by follow-on e-mail communication with tips on how to use products.

Last year, the company reported that 44% of total QVC sales came from online channels (up from 40% in 2014), and nearly half of those were completed on a mobile device. In fact, QVC is currently the tenth largest mobile commerce retailer in the United States, according to Internet Retailer.

Domino’s: Focusing on Speed and Convenience

sap_Q316_digital_double_feature3_images3Domino’s Pizza built a fast-food empire not necessarily on the quality of its pies but instead on the experience of getting hot food delivered quickly. What started out as a promise to deliver a pizza within 30 minutes to customers who phoned in their order is now a themed experience of efficient food delivery that can be fulfilled a number of ways. Domino’s AnyWare project enables customers to order pizzas from their TV, their Twitter account, their smartwatch, or their connected car, for starters. The Domino’s app features zero-click ordering functionality: Domino’s will start fulfilling the usual order for customers who opt in 10 seconds after opening the app.

Domino’s Australian stores are piloting GPS tracking whereby employees begin working on an order only when the customer enters the “cook zone”—a dynamically updated area around a given store that results in the customer arriving to a just-prepared order. The tool builds upon previously developed GPS-based technology for tracking delivery drivers, according to ZDNet. And the company that came up with the corrugated pizza box and the Heatwave Bag to keep pies warm is now building the DXP—a delivery car with a built-in warming oven. All in the name of the fast- and hot-food delivery experience.

Mohawk Industries: Using Social to Streamline Customer Interactions

Mohawk Industries grew to become a US$8 billion flooring manufacturer by relying on customers to visit its dealers’ retail locations to see, touch, and feel the carpet, hardwood, laminate, or tile they planned to purchase.

sap_Q316_digital_double_feature3_images4Today, instead of waiting for customers to find Mohawk, it has redesigned its experience to find them. It has adopted new technology and reworked its sales processes to reflect that new focus. The company’s 1,200 sales representatives have access to a 360-degree view of each customer, complete with analytics and sales tools on their tablets, enabling them to capture and follow through on leads generated through social media engagement.

By analyzing online discussions in real time, representatives can jump into the conversation and help customers find the product they may be searching for and direct the consumer to a retailer to finish the sale. In one episode, a woman was posting about her interest in a particular leopard rug on Twitter. Mohawk’s team surfaced the tweet, passed it on to a channel partner who contacted the woman and closed the sale within two minutes. Today, the company boasts an 80% close rate on sales started and guided in social media and has made $8 million on 14,000 such social leads. Mohawk Industries expects an increase of $25 million in sales year-over-year, thanks to its new customer-centric approach.

Customer Experience Design: Where to Begin

Developing a unique, valuable, and relevant customer experience that combines the best of offline and online capabilities is a huge undertaking. All corporate functions, including marketing, customer service, sales, operations, finance, and HR as well as product or business lines—all of which typically have competing metrics and agendas—must buy into the experience and collaborate to make it happen. And the ideal mix of digital and physical components will vary by company. But there are some best practices to get companies started on their own journeys.

Start at the Top

Without leadership buy-in, changes will not happen. “Customer experience is not a feature, it’s not a shiny button. It’s a concept that sometimes is tough to grasp. But we believe that if done right, it will keep customers loyal. And so we put a lot of effort into it,” says Kevin Scanlon, director of total customer experience at tech company EMC. “That’s why having that top-down support is paramount. If you don’t have it, you’re spinning your wheels. It’s going to give you the resources, the focus, and the attention that you need to design that consistent experience.”

To demonstrate its commitment, every VP and above at EMC has a customer experience metric as part of their quarterly goal.

Begin with the End in Mind

Companies can take a page from the design-thinking approach to product development, starting with the experience they want customers to have with their company and then putting in place the people, processes, and systems to make that happen across various touchpoints. Uber didn’t start by buying 1,000 cars. It started with a completely new customer experience it wanted to deliver—straddling the digital and physical—and then built the organization around that. Uber ultimately leveraged people, process, and technology to bring that to life, but it started with a unique customer journey.

Design for the Customer, Not the Company

sap_Q316_digital_double_feature3_images5To date, most corporate processes have been designed for internal efficiency or cost savings with little consideration for the impact on the customer. Companies that want to design for consistent experiences have to reexamine those business processes from the customer perspective. In order to deliver a standout and consistent experience, enterprises must bring together an assortment of data from a variety of systems—including POS transactions, mobile purchases, call center activity, notes from sales calls, and social media.

The average retailer has customer data in more than a dozen different systems. But it’s not just the front-end customer-facing systems that need orchestrating; back office systems and processes, from your supply chain to fulfillment to customer service, must be designed to deliver the intended experience. For example, Nespresso has to orchestrate a number of back-end and front-end systems to offer customers premium courier delivery within two-hour windows.

Put Someone in Charge

Companies that are truly invested in creating integrated, standout customer experiences often create a centralized function that can bring together the people, processes, and technology to bring them to life. Sometimes there is a chief customer officer or head of customer experience. But unless these people are really empowered, they’re toothless.

EMC’s Scanlon is empowered. He heads up a function that has been transformed from focusing on product quality into a centralized customer experience center of excellence staffed with 60 full-time professionals. The center has translated into “more focus, more energy, more insight to our customers,” says Scanlon. “And we can deliver that insight to our internal stakeholders, which trickles down to our account teams and lets them have more meaningful conversations that benefit our customers—and benefit the company over time.”

Centralize Customer Data

Even if there is no central customer experience function, there needs to be a central data repository and analytics system: a digital foundation that everyone can use to improve their piece of that experience. EMC’s customer experience group has a data governance function that maintains a single source of customer truth. “They’re able to pull all relevant data sources into one location and get past the typical customer data challenges,” says Scanlon.

Invest in People

Companies that care about the customer experience invest in the people who deliver it. Human beings are the clearest signposts on the customer journey. Companies must hire the best, train for desired outcomes, and reward based on experience metrics: for being brand ambassadors and for going above and beyond on behalf of the customer.

sap_Q316_digital_double_feature3_images6Rethink Metrics and Incentives

One major bank was having trouble driving adoption of its online banking tools. The customers that used the tools loved them, but the tools weren’t getting traction. The problem? The branch managers had no interest in promoting digital banking. They wanted to drive as much traffic as possible to their physical branches because this was one of their key performance metrics.

The solution was to change the compensation approach in order to reward employees for the entire customer experience, including online banking adoption. Branch managers were measured on online and offline customer behavior in their regions. That became a single and critical KPI, and it boosted the desired behaviors and improved overall customer satisfaction.

Create a Single View of the Company

For years, companies have talked about the importance of understanding the customer. And that remains true, particularly when it comes to delivering a valuable customer experience online and off. But successful customer experience design is just as much about giving customers a clear understanding of the company through coordinated experiences that deliver on the brand’s theme and bring it to life in various ways in bricks and mortar, through devices, in online interactions, and everywhere in between. D!

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.



Leveraging Digital Twins To Breathe New Life Into Your Products And Services

Thomas Kaiser

Are you familiar with the concept of the twin paradox? In physics, the twin paradox is a thought experiment in which one twin stays on Earth while the other travels in a spaceship at a high speed for a period of time. According to the special theory of relativity, the second twin will return home measurably younger than the first.

In a similar way, the concept of the digital twin can accelerate your business and breathe new life into your products and services.

But the digital twin isn’t just a thought experiment. Gartner lists digital twins as a Top 10 strategic trend for 2017. It’s part of a broader digital transformation on which IDC says companies will invest $2.1 trillion a year by 2019.

Already, smart companies are using digital twins to better understand operations, get closer to customers, and transform their business.

Connecting real and virtual

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a real-world product or service. That could be anything from a toaster to industrial machinery to complex processes. The virtual representation combines three types of information: business data, contextual data, and sensor data.

Business data covers information such as customer name, location, and service-level agreements. Contextual data includes details such as ambient temperature, humidity, and weather events. Sensor data involves things like machine speed, operating temperature, and vibration.

Sensor data is key because, while companies have been using digital twins for years, it’s only with the Internet of Things (IoT) that they’ve become cost-effective. Gartner predicts that 6.4 billion things will be connected this year, a 30% jump over 2015. By 2020, at least half of all new business processes will incorporate IoT – transforming live data into new value.

Drilling down on digital twins

How does a digital twin work? Let’s say you manufacture industrial drills. A digital twin can help you understand how customers use your drill. The goal is to continuously improve the product to increase customer satisfaction and identify opportunities for new products and services.

For example, you might discover that your drill malfunctions in certain situations. That can enable you to improve product design. Or it can let you help customers modify the way they use the drill to avoid problems.

Or, you might discover that customers use your drill not only to make holes but also to cut materials. That might lead you to develop a new product that’s purpose-built for cutting.

Or, maybe you discover that while customers want holes made, they don’t necessarily want to purchase and operate a drill. So rather than sell drills, you might offer a hole-drilling service. In other words, instead of charging customers for machinery they operate, you charge them for holes drilled by machinery you operate for them. Some SAP customers have been quite successful in making this kind of leap from products to services.

Digital twins across industries

Digital twins aren’t just for manufacturers. Insurers can apply digital twins in offerings like usage-based car insurance. Retailers can track how customers navigate the store and interact with products on the shelves. Cities can model areas for things like smart lighting. Ports can monitor weather, shipping traffic, containers, and trains and trucks entering and leaving.

Digital twins cover the entire lifecycle of an asset or process. In fact, they can form a foundation for an end-to-end, closed-loop value chain for smart, connected products and services, from design to production, from deployment to continuous improvement.

The promise of continuous improvement is why it’s increasingly important to integrate digital technologies into all products. As you leverage your digital twin to identify opportunities for new or better features, you can implement those improvements quickly and cost-effectively through firmware updates.

Implementing digital twins involves four steps:

  1. Integrate smart components such as sensors, software, computing power, or data storage into new or existing products.
  1. Connect the product to a central location where you can capture sensor data and enrich that sensor data with business and contextual data.
  1. Analyze that data on an ongoing basis to identify opportunities for product improvements, new products, or even new business models.
  1. Leverage these digital insights to transform your company — for example, by reducing costs through proactive avoidance of business interruptions, or by creating new business opportunities.

Of course, while those steps are easy to list, they can require significant effort to achieve. But digital twins are becoming a business imperative. Companies that fail to respond will be left behind. Those that embrace digital twins have the opportunity to better understand customer needs, continuously improve their products and services, and even identify new business models that give them competitive advantage.

Consumer demand for virtual reality is changing how businesses manage and operate. Learn how to transition From E-Business to V-Business.