“Digital Transformation” began with the first punch-card computers and has been going on ever since. Given this fact, many—even within the IT industry—may be fuzzy on Digital-Transformation mania, which is sweeping the corporate world. To really understand one of the most important technology trends of the decade, one needs to take a quick look at the history of digital technologies, which can be divided into two periods.
The Information age
The Digital age
Historically, new information technologies emerged at a pace that enabled organizations to stay abreast. Note the chart below:
The general market for each of these technologies emerged and matured along predictable, technology lifecycle paths. And while many of these technologies overlapped, still, organizations en masse were able to incorporate them on a global scale and at a reasonable pace.
In contrast to the Information Age, the Digital Age is marked by greatly accelerated innovation. Wave after wave of new technologies is now hitting organizations—the Internet of Things, Big Data, AI, Machine Learning, Block Chain, and on and on—all converging at once.
This escalating pace is illustrated in the chart:
This dramatic increase in the pace at which innovations hit the market is the catalyst of the “Digital Transformation” phenomenon, which, to many, is the incorporation of new digital technologies with existing IT systems and infrastructure in an effort to remain competitive. But if this is the nature and goal of digital transformation, then those who attempt it have cause for concern.
The simultaneous convergence of disruptive innovations constitutes a sort of digital storm, and, for many organizations, it’s causing some level of organizational chaos. Technical debt, accrued over years of band-aid coding is a big part of the prevailing weather system. The gradual adoption of new cloud-based services is another. Just getting it all to work together dominates IT resources for most companies. And exacerbating modernization and integration is the deluge of new technologies that needs to be accounted for in any organization’s IT roadmap.
For many organizations, the urge to just hunker down and wait out the storm is compelling, but fatal.
Unlike actual storms, which always end, the digital storm may not. In fact it’s hard to imagine a scenario whereby the pace of digital innovation will do anything but accelerate. In other words, storm conditions are the new normal.
Customers have been widely exposed to consumer apps that require virtually no training, are augmented by AI, plugged into the IoT, and work seamlessly across devices and channels.
Unfortunately, customer expectations ratchet in one direction only, and that’s up. Failing to meet today’s customer expectations—as well as keep up with evolving ones—could easily result in mass migration to vendors that provide a better overall user experience.
Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research and author of the book “Disrupting Digital Business: Create an Authentic Experience in the Peer-to-Peer Economy” (2015), sums up the wait-out-the-storm strategy:
. . . the impact is significant and now quantifiable with 52 percent of the Fortune 500 gone since 2000 and the average age of the S&P 500 company in 1960 down from 60 years to a little more than 12 projected in 2020. That is a 500 percent compression that has changed the market landscape forever in almost every industry. Basically, Digital Darwinism is unkind to those who wait. In fact, you will be out of business if you wait.
Multiple studies show that garden-variety change initiatives fail at a rate hovering around 70%. But the challenges presented by the digital storm are anything but ordinary. Consequently, industry analysts predict the failure rate for digital-transformation will be much higher. Forbes, for example, puts the number at a staggering 84%.Analysts predict the failure rate for digital-transformation could reach a staggering 84%. Click To Tweet
The question, then, that all business and technical decision makers must ask is this:
“With legacy modernization, cloud-service adoption, and the deluge of new technologies that must be accounted for all hitting at once, how do we effectively transform while the storm is constantly re-arranging the IT topography?”
On one hand, if you begin a transformation initiative now, and the digital landscape undergoes radical change before you’re finished, you’re investment could be wasted. On the other hand, if you wait until there’s more visibility, you’ll become a digital-storm statistic, as Wang predicts.
The Need for Future-Proof Applications
In concrete terms, digital transformation, for most organizations, will involve radically more software development, including the following:
Dozens to hundreds of back-office applications that enable cross-functional collaboration across departments
Hundreds to thousands of apps that address every touch point for every customer at every phase of their journey and which interact seamlessly with back-office systems
Thousands of automated processes that streamline operations, fortify governance, and institutionalize customer experience
The challenge is developing all this new software in such a way that it won’t become a legacy burden, needing to be re–architected with every new innovation or change. In short, for digital transformation to be successful, all of this new software must be impervious to storm conditions; in essence, it must be future proof.
The need to build new applications fast has catalyzed the emergence of Low-Code Development Platforms (LCDPs), which can speed development as much as ten times. Likewise, LCDPs across the board use a drag-drop-and-configure approach to application development, making application development much easier, to the extent that non programmers can build functional applications.
But in the context of the digital storm, fast and easy isn’t good enough. Applications need a range of characteristics that will enable them to continue working when inevitable change occurs.In the context of the digital storm, fast and easy isn’t good enough. Click To Tweet
Following is a list of ten characteristics that make applications and the platforms the produce them “future proof.”
Future-proof applications must have a hyper-agile architecture, meaning they can adapt on the fly to changes of all types and can be extended easily, without the need to recode.
Future-proof apps must be capable of deployment virtually anywhere, including
In private clouds
In public clouds
In Hybrid environments
On mobile devices
Furthermore, platforms on-which future-proof applications are built and run cannot be locked into a single type of deployment.
Future-proof applications must be embeddable in application platforms such as SharePoint 2007/2010/2013/2016, SharePoint Online, Dynamics CRM, SAP, Salesforce, NetSuite, etc. Furthermore, the same user experience should be available regardless of where an application is surfaced.
When organizations adopt new application platforms (cloud services), future-proof apps will enable rapid incorporation of platform functionality into apps via drag, drop, and configure.
Future-proof applications must be architected to run in modern browsers, enabling common user experience across browsers. Likewise, platforms on which future-proof apps are built will enable seamless model translation into native IOS, Android, and Windows Phone apps.
Furthermore, apps must be architected in such a way that they will run on new versions of mobile operating systems and devices as well as future versions of browsers.
A future-proof platform must be able to seamlessly convert business applications designed for modern browsers into native mobile apps for IOS, Android, and Windows Mobile.
Apps built on a future-proof platform will be separated into layers—the business system, itself, on one layer, the application/process on a separate layer, and the data on a third layer. This design characteristic enables easy migration from one system to another or from one technology to another.
Enterprises often create custom applications on their various business platforms, such as SharePoint or Salesforce. When these platforms are upgraded for security reasons and for adding new functionality, apps may cease to function and must be refactored in order to resume operation. In contrast to the commonplace “breakable” apps that organizations typically build, Future-proof apps must be unaffected by system upgrades/updates.
Most organizations experience application downtime during updates or upgrades. These downtimes can last for hours and, in some cases, days. Future-proof apps can be updated at runtime, thus eliminating downtime.
Upgrades to the application platform itself can be performed without downtime in platform-cluster deployments.
To be truly future-proof, applications and platforms must be scalable in multiple ways, including the following:
Process-based applications can be extremely complex, involving hundreds of steps and dozens of sub-processes. A future-proof platform should be capable of supporting processes of any size that span any time frame.
It’s not uncommon for large organizations to build thousands of custom applications. Digital transformation initiatives could push the number into tens of thousands. A future-proof platform should be able to handle millions of running application instances simultaneously without requiring an ever expanding server farm.
It’s common for an organization to build a business app that initially has relatively limited use. But as the organization grows, application usage could go up exponentially. Future-proof apps must be capable of scaling from a few hundred users to a few million without being re-architected.
Given the nature of the digital storm—continuous innovation—it’s a virtual certainty that organizations will want to incorporate new technologies—AI, Block Chain, etc.—into existing applications. A future-proof platform enables the incorporation of activities from new technologies using drag-drop-and-configure.
What to Look for in a Digital Transformation Platform
Given the high failure rate of transformation initiatives, choosing a transformation platform is critical. The question is what to look for when making this all important decision.
Process Is Paramount
Many general purpose Low-Code platforms enable the rapid development of business apps, but have little process capability. If you choose a general-purpose platform, you’ll almost certainly end up adopting a second, process-focused platform to handle the many automated workflows that transformation will require. Better yet, simply choose a platform that has the depth and breadth to handle non-process apps as well as any level of process automation.
BPM and Low Code—Both Necessary
The need to do deep automation of back-office processes isn’t going anywhere, so BPM-level functionality is critical to a transformation platform. And these days, the need to build hundreds—even-thousands—of lightweight apps that automate every touch-point of the customer journey are also mission critical. So the speed and agility of a low-code platform is also important.
Future-Proof–There’s the Rub
Platforms that combine enterprise-class BPM with Low-Code are out there. The key is finding one that will generate future-proof software assets—if thousands of new apps require constant maintenance just to keep running, you’re transformation initiative will be crushed under it’s own weight.
Look for a platform that provides both model-driven design and model-driven execution of new apps. Such a platform will utilize metadata abstraction of model components into XML rather than converting application models into computer code.
Outcome is everything, here. The metadata approach yields flexible apps that can be built once and surfaced in any cloud service and which are self-adaptive to many types of daily changes. The code-generation approach yields brittle apps that have to be rebuilt multiple times to run in various environments.
By Leonard DuCharme and Niranjan Rao