by Ethan Pack

The possibilities and perils of platforms

May 01, 2018
Enterprise ArchitectureIT StrategyTechnology Industry

There is a lot of buzz around the notion of platforms. This article communicates how platforms start with evaluating the organization's operating model to identify areas to expose one's firm as a platform. Once the business vision and implications are identified, some key technology capabilities need to be available to connect and expand a company's reach.

Today’s competitor will be tomorrow’s partner—rather, they should be, at times.

Platform is a trending buzzword amongst digital business leaders and strategists, but much like “digital transformation,” it can be quite the squishy term.  What does platform mean to me?  Well, I believe that platforms are the engines of our digital businesses.  They allow an organization’s business capabilities and services to transcend today’s silos—both internally between different operational business units and externally to enrich customer-facing applications and extend the reach of the organization to partners and other outside entities.  Platforms deliver products and services, but they can also be the product or service.

The platform as enterprise architecture

Merriam-Webster lists “plan” and “design” in its first definition of the word platform.  We notice some key phrases when drilling down into those two words: “a method for achieving an end”, “a detailed formulation of a program of action”, “an orderly arrangement of parts of an overall design or objective”, “an underlying scheme that governs functioning, developing, or unfolding.” 

When considering these plan and design definitions, I suggest that a platform is essentially the enterprise architecture of an organization.  We don’t start with the software or technology; rather we (should) begin with concept and context.  The organizational operating model and its digital ambitions are the basis for the platform.  This underscores the importance of business architecture within enterprise architecture.

Enterprise architects and business leaders need to start with the business environment and identify the value streams, capabilities, and customer journeys in order to answer important questions like “how do we want to better connect with partners and customers” and “what are the areas of economic or competitive value that we are not producing today?”  Only once we have established our digital vision can we begin to identify and address the technologies needed to become a platform business.

The platform as technology-enabled backbone

With the digital business vision established, one needs a type of “meta-platform” on which to build your platform business.  Gartner dubs this the “digital business technology platform.”  Sure, industries and organizations are different, but they share many of the same core capabilities.  Therefore, these common technological enablers represent the major pillars of the digital business technology platform.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

Businesses exist to provide value to a constituency of people, both those helping to produce the value, and those wanting to receive the value (usually in exchange for money).  It is critical for organizations to have a system of record to track customers’ experiences and interactions with one’s firm.   Gone are the days of CRM as simply the “enterprise rolodex,” rather it must manage the holistic customer journey.  CRM must now enable the omnichannel interactions that customers have with a business in person, over the phone, through web and mobile applications, and with chatbots and AI agents.  Digital makes us even more aware that it is all about the customer, so it is crucial to manage this key group and the segments within.

Integration and API management

Applications must be able to exchange information and functionality seamlessly, so integration (in one form or another) has been a necessity for many years.  However, the batch-based integrations of the pre-digital era will not get the job done in a “need it now” world.  The enterprise service bus (ESB) is still a very necessary component of the digital business technology platform to help connect systems and enable real-time connectivity.  What’s more, the prevalence of application programming interfaces (API) require us to expose granular services to the outside world.  When done right, the ESB and API worlds can co-exist, with APIs leveraging the building blocks created through past service-oriented architecture (SOA) efforts.

Business process management and automation

As applications are connected, we must better manage the cross-organizational business processes which occur.  Inefficiencies in one’s internal operations cause undo friction particularly regarding the increased time and costs it takes to get work done.  Scaling the organization to meet the demands of more customers usually requires increased headcount, so while having the business processes modeled and streamlined is a big and necessary step forward, leaders need to seek areas to automate parts of the process.  Technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) allow robotic workers to take on tasks like rekeying data or filling out forms, which free up human resources to take on valuable work that is not automatable.

Data and information management

Data is the water that flows in and around our organizations, bringing life to everything that happens at a company.  Many of us know the poor state of data that exists today, so we must emphasize a culture of valuing data and managing it appropriately.  In addition to people changes, technology leaders must introduce tools to improve data quality and availability.  Tools like master data management (MDM) solutions complement the rest of the digital business technology platform.  A CRM system is much more valuable when we merge and de-duplicate customer records, for example.  Also, what good is information when it is not available to the people who need it inside and outside of your company?  We must empower these internal and external users with self-service business analytics and data visualization tools that allow access to the valuable asset of data in a secure manner.

Business ecosystems demand platforms

The enterprise doesn’t end at the walls of our offices and data center, rather it is an interconnected mesh of onsite and remote employees, customers, and partners all set within the context of our industries and markets.  Today’s business landscape is an ecosystem—a Darwinian ecosystem, at that.  Yes, “survival of the fittest” has always been a business reality, but much like life in the jungle, it’s those with the right mix of size and speed who come out on top in the digital economy.  Disconnectedness from the larger ecosystem may have been tolerable before, but isolationism is no longer a viable strategy—unless you want to become prey to digital-ready competition.  Platforms enable the size-speed combination and can help turn would-be predators into future partners.