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Wearables in the enterprise: High risk and high reward

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Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference is being held this week in San Francisco, and a sizable chunk of the mega-event centers on the company’s recent focus on wearables. The cloud computing pioneer in June launched Salesforce Wear, a platform for developers of software for wearable gadgets including Google Glass, Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift and Jawbone UP. And last month it launched the $100 million Salesforce 1 Fund to invest in companies working to extend the Salesforce 1 Platform to apps for wearables and other mobile devices.

I’m generally skeptical of the short-term market for consumer-centric wearable devices other than fitness trackers, but the enterprise market for wearables appears to be much more promising over the next few years: Surgeons are already using Google Glass in the operating room for collaborative and educational purposes; Virgin Atlantic is outfitting some concierge employees with Google Glass to improve customer service; The Container Store is testing Theatro’s hands-free, voice-activated devices that are clipped to employees’ shirts; and Disney is distributing MagicBands to guests at its theme parks and hotels to enable them to avoid lines, meet characters, open room doors and pay for goods and services.

An IT storm is brewing

These early deployments are small in scale and primarily pilots, to be sure, but enterprise use of wearables is expected to ramp up quickly. Which means that some IT departments that are still struggling getting a handle on smartphones and tablets will soon be tasked with managing a much wider array of devices. And many of the new wearables will differ from “traditional” mobile devices in some very important ways:

  • Privacy and sensitive data. Google Glass’s ability to surreptitiously record people has already caused a stir in the consumer market, and those concerns are heightened in a workplace where employees’ identities and their activities and surroundings mustn’t be disclosed. Even the most rudimentary wearable devices could hold information such as an employee’s health and fitness data, or his whereabouts over an entire shift. And that presents a big challenge for HR departments as well as for IT managers.
  • Security and management. Most wearables in these early days lack the authentication protocols IT departments often depend on, and many don’t have management APIs to easily enable configuration management. Also, some wearable devices depend on entirely new technologies and operating systems and often aren’t easy to integrate well with legacy systems, creating entirely new headaches for those tasked with managing them.

High risk and high reward

Businesses wishing to leverage wearable devices and the data they produce must consider a long list of factors as they wade into the market. Firstly, CIOs and IT managers need to understand how wearables can benefit their businesses and weigh the costs of supporting and integrating the new devices. Initial deployments should be small in scale and constantly monitored and improved before being expanded to as many employees as appropriate. Businesses should consider experimenting with a range of wearable devices and technologies based on their needs, but must always do so as quickly as possible while minimizing costs.

And while technology-based mobile management solutions are crucial, guidelines and policies based in common sense are as important as ever. Policies must be clearly written and constantly communicated, and users must be educated on the devices themselves and why they’re being used. But IT also needs to understand that employees won’t obey onerous policies, and they won’t eagerly embrace wearables that don’t obviously increase productivity. And companies that use wearables to track their employees must be upfront and honest about what data is being gleaned and how it is being used. There’s no question that wearables are coming to the enterprise in a big way, and that they can help increase the bottom line in substantial ways. But the market is fraught with peril for businesses that don’t use them wisely.