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The giant construction services firm Bechtel has a very interesting take on what an app should be, and how enterprise apps relate to business processes. Their approach holds many lessons for companies wanting to innovate their processes but it also illuminates the growing importance of the device. In future so much business will be mediated by a device that you need a device strategy.

We carry around a lot of confusion about the changes happening around us. Is this the Age of Complexity, The Age of Context or the Age of Intent? Well one thing is clear, the old binary change we thought we were living through – industrial and post-industrial, manufacturing v service, is wonderfully complex.

And one complicating factor is that within five years we have elevated hand-held devices into shrines. They can contain pretty much all that we do – from who we talk to, chat or text to, our body metrics, documents, photographs, connections, calendars. We rub them and hug them.

It’s interesting, then, to see attempts to use them to simplify our work lives and that’s what Bechtel has done. Bechtel runs about 40 major construction projects a year, globally. Every one of them is like a start-up. Every one of them needs some common information and some novel information – on the terrain, local living conditions global to local supply chains, partner information and collaboration records, contracts, etc.

So they use the device to segment the huge information repositories that feed this information need. When staff come on site they are given a tablet, pre-loaded with apps that are very specific to the new project. They give people access to those areas of the corporate knowledge base that they need. In other words what Bechtel has done is overcome the problems associated with siloed information through the device. It could have chosen a huge information reengineering approach but the device and app approach works better.

Most enterprise knowledge bases are overwhelming for individuals. But a device strategy can help solve that – and for innovators it might be a big breakthrough to take a small, bottom up approach to information rather than an architectural one.

We still think of the device as the smartphone in our pocket or the tablet we take out for meetings. But explore it deeper because in fact it is becoming many things. The device will be a robot, a coffee maker, a lighting system, the car, a watch, glasses and so on. Very soon there will be few objects that do not communicate. What does a device consist of?

At the very least it consists of hardware, software, connectivity and services. A well-developed product strategy has to think across these 4 elements. They are not just components of a product, they are different industrial / business disciplines. An example:

In the old days a product could be a physical entity, a financial opportunity like a savings product or a loan, or it could be a piece of software nicely wrapped in a box and sold on the shelf of a local computing store.

We are accustomed to seeing a binary transition here – we think of physical to virtual or stand-alone to networked. In fact the device is both of these and more. It also reaches back into the industrial past. It is a physical object. And it is the symbol of more ephemeral activity. It is a junction for services to flow through, as well as the primary channel for significant communications. It is our presence.



I wonder how many companies are currently designing for the device? We know that plenty of them are designing and building apps – but that means designing and building for another company’s devices. I think companies could be smarter about their apps – they could take a lesson from Bechtel for example and recognise that the device is actually a funnel for redesigning business processes.

But you have to go beyond that and figure out what are the competencies needed to maximise your payoff from the dawning device age? Do you have the skills, disciplines and insights to develop devices? These are some of its effects:

  • Hardware begins to adopt a more software-like iteration cycle
  • The product owner has to contend with and merge different cultures (hardware, software, communications, services) in the enterprise
  • The device needs community (developers and committed users) so the originator has to learn attraction skills
  • The design has to open up new business models (monetizing the community or ecosystem)

Companies as diverse as Disney, Intel, and Nike are becoming device companies: Disney in 3D optics; Intel in robotics; and Nike in wearable computing. Should it be on your radar?

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Haydn Shaughnessy

Haydn Shaughnessy

I'm an expert on systemic innovation and transformation, a topic I have been studying since the early 1980s. I advise companies and organizations on the latest thinking and practice in innovation as w