Study: ‘Device Mesh’ Among 2016’s Strategic Tech Trends

Businesses face growing smart-machine-driven landscape, Gartner says

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin Jan 19, 2016
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A growing “device mesh”—the web of wearable and mobile devices and Internet of Things sensors that people use to find information or communicate online—leads Gartner Inc.’s list of strategic technology trends for 2016.

The device mesh and other trends “herald an algorithmic- and smart-machine-driven world in which people and machines must define harmonious relationships, according to Gartner.” Gartner predicts that these strategic technology trends—ones likely to affect an organization’s long-term plans and activities, to disrupt business or IT end users, to require a major investment, or to pose a risk for those companies that are hesitant to adopt new technologies—will shape digital business opportunities through 2020.

A Mesh of Devices

"In the post-mobile world, the focus shifts to the mobile user who is surrounded by a mesh of devices extending well beyond traditional mobile devices," David Cearley, vice president and a Gartner Fellow, stated in a news release. The device mesh is an expanding set of endpoints—mobile, wearable, consumer, home electronics, automotive and environmental devices, including sensors in the Internet of Things—that people and businesses will use to reach applications and information or interact with others.

Devices, while increasingly connected to back-end systems through various networks, have often worked in isolation from one another, the firm states. But with the growing device mesh, Gartner expects the expansion of “connection models” and the emergence of greater cooperative interaction between devices, “merging the physical and virtual worlds,” Cearley said.

By 2018, the firm projects, 6 billion “connected things” will need support, and more than 3 million workers around the world will be supervised by a “robo-boss.” As SHRM Online reported last year, HR will need to make sure humans aren’t left out of the equation when robots begin to do most of the work.

Also by 2018, Gartner forecasts, 2 million employees will be required to wear fitness and health tracking devices as a condition of employment. Emergency first responders will probably make up the largest group required to monitor their health with wearables—for their own safety—according to Gartner, which predicted that professional athletes, airline pilots, political leaders, and industrial and remote field workers also will have to wear health monitors.

Such requirements, however, might run afoul of privacy and labor laws.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission "is going to be really anxious about anyone who’s going to require that an employee enter a wellness program,” including requiring employees to wear a fitness tracker or provide DNA, said Kate Bischoff, SHRM-SCP, a Minneapolis-based management-side employment attorney with Zelle LLP. Wellness programs must be voluntary, she said.

The Internet of Things, meanwhile, is "coming to an employer near you," Bischoff said. Not only will the Internet of Things allow employees to use devices like smartwatches to turn on computers or space heaters at work, it will allow employers to know where employees are, who is talking to whom and how space is being used. “All of those things are coming to the workplace, and they’re going to have a big impact on productivity and they’re going to be able to tell bosses” who’s doing a better job, she said.

According to the results of Sierra-Cedar’s 2015-2016 HR Systems Survey, 10 percent of organizations are using wearable technology today, with another 8 percent evaluating wearables for business use. “When organizations use wearable workplace technology, 55 percent of our respondents are using it to track productivity, 45 percent are concerned about workforce safety, and 36 percent are implementing workforce technology for audit purposes," the firm said.

Sierra-Cedar says it saw a 30 percent increase in the percentage of organizations using wearable technologies as part of their HR strategy this year.

Other device meshes include:

  • Ambient user experience. Emerging technologies will flow “across a shifting set of devices and interaction channels, blending physical, virtual and electronic environment as the user moves from one place to another,” Gartner states.
  • 3-D printing materials. Innovations will drive demand in 3-D printed electronics, pharmaceuticals and biological materials, which will expand to aerospace, medical, energy and other sectors, Gartner noted.
  • Information of everything. Data will be transmitted beyond text, audio and video information to include, for example, sensory data, Gartner notes.
  • Advanced machine learning. Systems will “learn to perceive the world on their own,” Gartner stated, performing tasks and analysis functions that are unrealistic for humans to perform given the “explosion of data sources and complexity of information.” For example, machines will write 20 percent of business content by 2018.
  • Autonomous agents and things. "Over the next five years, we will evolve to a post-app world, with intelligent agents [like Siri and Google Now] delivering dynamic and contextual actions and interfaces," Cearley said. "IT leaders should explore how they can use autonomous things and agents to augment human activity and free people for work that only people can do.”

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance writer and journalist in Philadelphia. She previously worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires.

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