PaaS, part one: The BLT

Since the term "platform" can have many interpretations, enterprise architects and business strategy leaders must provide clarity to help organizations hone their platform ambitions.

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Much of my work over the past decade has centered on the notion of building a platform in one way or another.  It could be through architecting a major business service to meet a new regulatory need, defining, implementing, and managing partner integrations, participating in standards and data governance bodies, or exploring business partnerships to design a shared platform.  I always loved connecting and exposing various parts of the organization, especially by means of external collaboration—turning our intra-industry enterprises into inter-industry ecosystems.

Given the trendiness around all-things platform, I’m obsessed with following this very buzzy word.  Through research and discussing this topic with others, I’ve distilled various thoughts into three groups (along with very broad generalizations for each):

1. Platform as omnichannel experience

“Mainstream” business-oriented thinking

We all see and experience game-changing technologies on a daily basis.  Business leaders—and more importantly, customers—want their companies to step up to deliver the same types of intuitive design and seamless experiences put forward by the likes of Starbucks, Domino’s Pizza, and Amazon.  Technology is important, but the focus tends to skew toward mobile apps (from the customer/outside viewpoint) and “360-degree” customer relationship management (CRM) and data analytics (from the employee/inside perspective).

2. Platform as underlying technology(ies)

“Mainstream” technology-oriented thinking

Techopedia defines platform as “a group of technologies that are used as a base upon which other applications, processes or technologies are developed.”  Here, cloud technologies (especially platform-as-a-service [PaaS] and infrastructure-as-a-service [IaaS]), software development frameworks, and application and data integration are highly regarded to unify systems, provide data access, and managing increasing technical debt and complexity.  Many in this group have bandaged systems just to keep the operational lights and realize how IT needs to both deliver more quickly to meet rapidly evolving business needs while keeping the organizational Jenga tower standing when moving blocks around.

3. Platform as business model

“Outlier” business and technology thinking, economists, futurists

The business itself is created or recreated to take advantage of the network effect.  While a platform business might create products or services, they now seek to amplify (or even cannibalize) their existing offerings by leveraging the connections between people, machines, and products/services.  They transcend thinking about growth and value as being primarily for the firm’s shareholders, then employees and customers; they aim to share growth and value amongst all who participate in their platform business—the cliché win-win, but at massive scale.

I am a believer in all three of these characterizations and suggest that the first two platform definitions are pre-requisites to attaining the third.  The good news is that many enterprises already bias (intentionally or accidentally) on either the experience-first or the technology-first side of the mainstream platform divide.  Those who possess, or desire to have, mature service-orientation, system integration, and/or standardized processes likely align closer to the technology-first viewpoint, while firms who are great relationship brokers and connect people to the right solution (especially in times where one must be agile to create a new solution) have more of an experience-first starting point. 

Platform-as-a…sandwich?

You may already be familiar with the PaaS abbreviation, knowing that it represents the platform-as-a-service model of cloud computing; however, my hunger to unify the “experience platform” and “technology platform” views inspired what I am calling the enterprise platform-as-a-sandwich model.    I suggest that this culinarily inspired analogy works when we consider many of our enterprise business platforms.  I continue to assert that the enterprise’s full stack of services is the true platform and that we should all strive to become platform companies.  Additionally, the singular platform desired by business leaders is actually a platform-of-platforms.

While I’m indifferent toward the edible BLT sandwich of bacon, lettuce, and tomato (I actually haven’t had one in a long time), I am a huge fan of the BLT platform sandwich.  This model features three areas: a business services platform, a technology services platform, and a linkage platform that unifies people, data, process, and systems (which in and of itself likely consists of one or more solutions or “platforms”).  Here is the graphical depiction of our platform-as-a-sandwich:

blt platform as a sandwich model Ethan Pack

The BL6T platform-as-a-sandwich model.

A business services platform and a technology services platform represent the bread of our enterprise platform sandwich.  And like a real sandwich, the insides of our “bread” face the internal enterprise while the organization’s external consumers and contributors interact with—or “touch”—the outside.  The metaphorical meat, toppings, and condiments come via the linkage layer--this vital area is in between the experience-focused and technology-focused wrappers.  Every human and machine component within the enterprise exists here; it contains the bulk of the “caloric energy” contained within the enterprise platform. 

There are six categories in the middle “linkage” platform:

Labor

Without people, the business doesn’t move (at the time of this writing, at least).  A firm’s employees are the focal point in the labor domain.  People are the enablers of change, affected by change, and ensure that business functions are successfully completed.  This is the most important aspect of the entire business platform.

Logic

The majority of an organization’s “operational central nervous system” is here.  This area addresses a how a company manages business processes and business rules/decisions.  The notion of event-driven architecture and responding to business moments is a strong requirement to provide the engaging intelligence and experiences of a platform business.

Library

This area focuses on information management and knowledge management.  Our companies have tons of data and many organizations are not able to use it fully today.  I can only imagine how valuable library and information science graduates will be in helping organize our ever-growing data coffers.

Ledger

The various individual, divisional, and enterprise scoreboards are central to drive performance and growth, therefore this category is all about storing and analyzing data, connecting information to business results.  Metrics and key performance indicators (KPI), operational-level agreements (OLA) and service-level agreements (SLA), and performance analysis sit at the forefront here.

Legal

Many of have already noticed how current laws and regulations fall short or otherwise do not work in an increasingly digitalized environment.  Regardless, the rules are the rules and the focus in the legal domain is to ensure legislative and regulatory compliance of the business.

Legacy

This area covers the firm’s history, seizing the best aspects of the past and current state, the future-state vision and ambitions, and the organizational culture in past, present, and future—as well as defining how cultural gaps should be addressed.

Everything in this middle layer has relationships with nearly everything else.  In this way, the meat of the platform sandwich is the actual enterprise architecture.

While many platform discussions focus too heavily on the surface-level slices of bread, architecture and strategy leaders can help bring the meat to the forefront of their organizations’ platform ambitions.  The bread is the “sandwich delivery system,” containerizing the ingredients within. While the type of omnichannel experience and core technology platform(s) one selects is important, there is little-to-no substantial differentiation to be found in the trends and tools alone.

Organizations must enhance the quality of the people “bacon,” the freshness of the data and process “lettuce”, the juiciness of the technology “tomatoes,” the strategic seasoning sprinkled about, and cultural condiments spread across the landscape to make their unique flavor stand out in every byte.

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