CIOs prepare for the wearable workplace
Image: Alberto Antoniazzi
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CIOs prepare for the wearable workplace

Jessica Twentyman — October 2014

IT leaders at FedEx, Ocado and Seattle Children’s Hospital share their ambitions for using wearable tech in the enterprise.

Wearable technologies: a geeky consumer craze or the next generation of smart tools that will help employees to work smarter?

At Forrester Research, analyst JP Gownder sways towards the latter. He believes that while the hype surrounding smartwatches, connected wristbands and Google Glass headsets tends to focus on consumer adoption, such technologies will actually be a bigger hit in the workplace: “The market for company-provided wearables will be larger than the consumer market in the next five years.”

It’s a bold forecast, but many CIOs are inclined to agree, having already spotted some enticing potential use-cases in their own organizations. In fact, say some, it’s not a question of if their organization will start using wearables, but when.

At US shipping giant FedEx, wearables are already old news, according to CIO Rob Carter. “Been there, done that,” he quips, citing several examples. Since 2000, many FedEx parcel handlers have been equipped with scanning devices worn as a ring and used while loading vans. These are designed to communicate via Bluetooth with a device worn on the forearm and, as well as scanning every package handled, they let workers know if they’re placing a parcel into the wrong container or truck via ‘tactile feedback’ — a short buzzing sensation.

 Rob Carter, CIO at Fedex

All of FedEx’s current generation of aircraft, meanwhile, are equipped with heads-up displays (HUDs) that dramatically increase flight safety by improving the situational awareness of pilots during bad weather conditions and night flights, says Carter.

“We’ve had terrific value from the wearables we’ve deployed, so it’s an area we’ll continue to pursue as next-generation technologies become available. I strongly believe it works in our favor that we’ve already got strong ideas and opinions on the best use-cases in our organization and we’ve also established the business case in terms of safety, convenience, productivity and health for our employees,” he adds.
Step in the dark

For other technology leaders, wearable technology represents more of a step into the unknown — but an exciting one. At UK-based online grocery company Ocado, for example, chief technology officer Paul Clarke says that wearable technology is already an area of “great interest, thought and research.” Google Glass is currently the subject of an internal pilot project at the company and Clarke sees “massive potential” for wearables in its fulfillment centers, regional distribution hubs and fleet of more than 800 delivery vehicles.

Paul Clarke, CTO at Ocado

“This as a way of tying the people element into our wider ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) strategy,” he says. IoT will bring plenty of new opportunities for generating and capturing information at Ocado, he says, but humans will always be necessary to make manual interventions and judgment-calls.

As he highlights, the workplace value of wearables lies in their ability to feed relevant, contextual information directly to workers at the point of decision-making, often in situations where they need to receive that information in a hands-free way — because their hands are otherwise occupied fixing, checking or driving.

In Ocado’s case, it’s most likely to be information about orders and deliveries: a prompt to a warehouse employee who is manually sorting through a customer order to ensure they check that it contains a particular item, for example, or an update to a delivery driver needing to double-check the address of their next drop-off.
Wearable, attachable, implantable

At Seattle Children’s Hospital in Washington state, by contrast, this information is more likely to relate to how a young patient is responding to the treatment they’re receiving, according to CIO Wes Wright. “My main area of interest when it comes to wearables is a category I’d term ‘clinical attachables’ — devices that attach directly to patients to measure blood pressure, blood sugar or heart rate, for example,” he says.

Wright Wes 006-2
Wes Wright, CIO at Seattle Children's Hospital

Healthcare is one of the hottest areas for such technologies; by the end of 2013 around 3 million patients worldwide were already being monitored through the use of connected personal medical devices — some wearable, some implanted — and that figure is set to rise to 19.1 million by 2018, according to a recent study from specialist IoT research firm Berg Insight.

Wright believes that much of the data flowing from these attachables is a valuable addition to any patient’s Electronic Medical Record (EMR), enabling medical staff to more closely monitor their condition.

Elsewhere, he reports that other healthcare CIOs are interested in enabling surgeons to capture video of the surgeries they perform via Google Glass and other headsets, to use as teaching aids for medical students. Some, meanwhile, are looking into equipping medical staff with wearables that could allow them to scan barcodes or smart tags to identify patients and verify the medications they receive. But for Wright, it is capturing a patient’s clinical data that will take priority for now.

“By 2020, wearables will be commonplace among employees at many enterprises and central to how their employees do their jobs.”

Both Ocado’s Clarke and Seattle Children's Wright foresee some challenges ahead, however. For Clarke, the biggest hurdles to adoption are the cost of devices and the battery life they offer.

“If you’re rolling out in an industrial context, you need to kit out a large number of employees and that’s a substantial investment right now,” he says. “When it comes to battery life, it’s hard enough to remember to charge your own mobile phone, so the last thing you want as an employee is finding that a vital tool you absolutely rely on to get work done has gone dead. There are ways around this — spare batteries, spare devices and so on — but this needs to be considered if you want a wearable device to be a ubiquitous, always-on resource for someone working an eight-hour shift, for example.”

As Clarke also points out, there’s no standardized platform for wearables — raising the same problems for corporate IT as are already posed by smartphones and tablets. Plus, IT teams may also face substantial challenges in integrating the data streams created by wearables into back-end systems and databases.

Integration is also a concern for Wright. “What I have in mind now is to keep attachables data separate, so it wouldn’t populate the core EMR database but use a separate database closely linked to the EMR and still allow us to run queries across both,” he says. But within 18 months he sees attachables data being directly integrated with the EMR system.

That’s the thinking for many CIOs — preparing for an opportunity that might be too good to miss. As Ocado’s Clarke says: “Quite a lot has to happen with the technology before it becomes practical for us to deploy on any sort of scale, but I strongly feel it’s worth doing the R&D work now, so that we’re ready as soon as that moment comes.”

Certainly, for analysts such as Forrester’s JP Gownder, that moment is not far off. Over the next two years he foresees not just piloting but early adoption, with enterprise wearables making their way into the healthcare and public safety sectors, as well as vertical industries with high numbers of field workers.

By 2017 “developer ecosystems surrounding wearable devices will mature, creating apps, back-end software and services to support enterprise-class wearables implementations on a broader scale,” he predicts, before 2020 when wearables will be commonplace among employees at many enterprises and “central to how their employees do their jobs.”

First published October 2014
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