Being agile has never been as important as right now. With COVID-19 shifting both markets and end-customer needs, companies need to adapt. And to do that, they need to be agile.
In reality, this is easier said than done. While cloud-native companies can recalibrate their business models to changing demands quickly, traditional companies can’t. Even as many intensify their focus on digital transformation, they face considerable hurdles in legacy systems, old (and sometimes broken) work processes, a fragmented data landscape, and a traditional mindset.
The answer may lie in platformification. Not a new term, it calls for companies to build platforms (not IT systems) and leverage economies of scale by creating ecosystems. All the big IT brands are doing, and now traditional companies from banking to retail are starting to see its worth as a digital transformation accelerator.
A recent C-Engage roundtable, organized by FutureCIO together with OutSystems, took a deep dive into the concept. It also looked at the challenges that stop companies from becoming agile, dispelled popular myths, and highlighted key steps companies need to take.
Not a band-aid
Leonard Tan, country manager for Singapore at OutSystems, began the conversation by stating that the agile and low-code development is not “a band-aid.” He drew a correlation between the two terms by suggesting that low-code development frees up the development team to focus on strategic initiatives and deliver on them fast.
“Rather, it is a paradigm shift to make you more relevant to where the market is moving towards. It comes down to how fast you can go to market and how fast you can react,” Tan continued.
The reason why low-code development is becoming crucial for agile IT is that “no one can afford 10 months” to create the right product or service, he explained.
Besides the dramatically shrinking time-to-market window, Tan also observed that companies are trying to do more with the manpower resources they have. “Right now, many companies are facing a hiring freeze, but they are forced to deliver more with those same skill sets and the same people.”
This observation rang true when a poll survey was conducted during the webinar. Half the respondents said that they are spending 25% to 50% of their time building their apps, with a few more than 50%.
It is one reason why Azuhar Mohammed, head of Global Solution Centre – Expertise & Innovation, Sanofi wants to focus on simplification and automation within his company. “We are trying to consolidate the application and make it as simple with better user experience as possible. With this strategy, we are looking into standardization of solutions with minimum in-house development,” he said.
Jacky Bek, deputy director for own system, National Environment Agency, believes that the workload on IT will only get heavier. So, a platformification concept makes both business and IT sense.
Bek also liked the idea of re-use, which is a crucial benefit of platformification, and called for less wasteful development. “I think the crux of the problem is the way we introduced new applications in the past. We tended to build or buy, and once it was not useful, we threw it away.”
Another problem is waiting for users to write down all their requirements “in one shot.” “Most of the time, this changes the next month. So, the government is looking to adopt a more agile model of implementation,” he added.
“And it’s really about the concept of MVP. Being able to roll out something quickly, and if it fails, fails quickly as well,” added OutSystems’ Tan.
However, participants also noted that there is no single approach to platformification for a company. It is because every company is unique in terms of business and IT needs. “There is no one-size-fits-all,” said Chan Chuan Teo, deputy director for ICT at Civil Service College.
While platformification can spur agile development, the webinar participants noted that the question of legacy apps still needs to be addressed.
“We still have a lot of legacy systems that we need to enhance. So, we are currently looking at off-the-shelf solutions to learn how we can implement these quickly within an organization,” said Kelvin Ng, deputy director – IT Infrastructure & Innovation at Nanyang Polytechnic.
So how do we overcome the challenge of legacy systems, especially when they are core to the operations?
Willie Tan, senior solutions architect for South East Asia at OutSystems, shared an insurance sector example where a traditional player improved the efficiency of their core system that they were using for the last 15 years.
Using a platformification approach, the company integrated its “satellite systems surrounding the core systems” and made it more efficient. As a result, “IT started to see that they have the capacity to take on new initiatives. Projects also became less about revamping and more about “expanding their business capabilities.”
Looking at legacy as a hurdle is also not going to help in today’s market, where departments are ready to develop their systems or find workarounds if IT is taking too long — an issue often labelled as shadow IT.
This means IT needs to become a business partner and create a platform for the business unit to build or deploy new apps. “The way we approach it is not like either/or, but how can we partner [with the business] together and make it a win-win,” said Priti Jauhari, head of Supply Chain TECHNOLOGY at Johnson & Johnson.
She noted if IT does not become responsive to business needs, “you will have small ‘Mickey Mouse’ systems all over, and then when security gets enhanced, we will have other issues.”
However, participants admitted that the journey will not be easy, although platformification can help. “It is challenging for me to comment on converging to a certain platform,” said Civil Service College’s Teo.
Another aspect of platformification that is attractive in today’s COVID-19 pandemic market is the idea of extreme agility. By being able to develop and provision apps as needed using the same resources and manpower is a powerful proposition.
Nanyang Polytechnic’ Ng went further. “We are encouraging our end-user community to develop their simple apps and using RPA to create their automated workflow. So, [their requests] do not bog down IT.”
One participant to the roundtable commented that the platform itself is meant to support professionals to become self-reliant, rather than rely on IT to get the job done.
This goes back to the earlier concern about shadow IT. “If the IT is not moving fast enough, users will end up doing the things themselves,” added Sok Yeong Teo, IT head at St Andrew’s Community Hospital.
However, OutSystems’ Tan advised participants to understand that low-code development is not necessarily a cure-all for all coding or platform ills.
“The concept of low code is that it is a machine-generated code.” This also means that previously hard-coded apps may need some of the code lines to be replaced to make sure the “machine can read human-generated code.”
But it can be done. Tan highlighted examples where customers have migrated SharePoint and Lotus Notes into low code.
“It takes them easily about a week or so to move [the app] into ours,” said Tan. But once this migration to low code is down, just like their customer T Mobile, they can create an app within one week. “That’s really how fast you can go.”
One of the biggest strengths of platformification is the human aspect.
As companies navigate COVID-19 challenges, they want their employees to add more value to the operations. It is an area where low-code platforms like OutSystems’ are designed to address.
For OutSystems’ Tan, adoption is not the question. The real question is whether employees are ready to adopt. “I can’t speak for all low code, but at least for our systems, we believe it is easy to adopt.”
OutSystems is also creating the groundwork for low-code adoption. “We are working with schools like SMU, Republic Poly, and Temasek Poly to put OutSystems as part of the curriculum. So, when the next generation of students come on board, they have some form of exposure to how low code can potentially play,” said Tan.
While he noted that programmers fearing for their jobs “are honestly valid concerns,” he reiterated what he shared right at the beginning of the webinar: “it’s a paradigm shift; it is about changing mindsets.” Besides, low code does not mean no code. “There is still the element of customization,” Tan added.
In the end, Tan sees platformification using low-code platforms becoming mainstream. “And once some of them try it, they start to see the value and the bigger picture on how they can build applications fast.”
Additionally, FutureCIO spoke to Tan to go into more details on both the operational and technical issues of low-code development. Click here to listen to the podchat with Tan of OutSystems.