Business as a platform

I've been spending quite a bit of time working with clients in central government in the past few months, and as a result have been consumed by the concepts of Government as a Platform that Tim O'Reilly proposed in an essay written back in 2010.

O'Reilly, the chap who apparently coined the phrase Web 2.0, proposes that government should look to the world of technology and software development, not just to be able to adopt digital services fit for the modern age, but much more fundamentally. Government as a Platform is a metaphor built upon a metaphor (a potentially confusing approach): a platform is something on which one can stand; a technology platform is a set of standards, of code, of underlying layers upon which others can build - think the IBM PC, Windows, MacOS, Android, the Internet, WWW and so on.

For O'Reilly, Government as a Platform is about public services that are enablers to other things in the same way that, for example, road networks have allowed for the growth and expansion of a stack of other industries and livelihoods, or the internet (a government-sponsored creation in many ways) spawned a raft of new industries and opportunities.

This kind of platform thinking in turn, I believe, could be applied to the way in which technology is provided within organisations to make it increasingly fit for purpose in our changing times. Take some of the key lessons that O'Reilly identifies for as-a-Platform thinking:

1. Open standards spark innovation and growth

In a world where loosely-coupled cloud-based services are becoming the norm, the function of defining common standards (not standard products) becomes the thing of greater value. Old models of monolithic applications running a single service for an entire organisation often result in sluggish pace of change and diseconomies of scale.

Far better surely, particularly in global organisations, for central IT functions to define interoperability and reporting standards rather than "one system to beat them all". Software as a Service makes the incremental technical cost of multiple services far less than it was in the past.

2. Build a simple system and let it evolve

The curse of Big IT functions are Big IT projects that promise the earth but deliver the wrong things too late. Agile delivery approaches of course begin to address this by encouraging a focus on working product delivery, but "simple" should be the mantra for even the sorts of initiatives for which waterfall or big bang delivery models are the only viable option (and there are many).

Corporate technology delivery can so easily fall into the kitchen sink world of everything trying to be delivered because "we might as well while we've got the bonnet open". Far better to design everything for simplicity.

3. Design for participation

Traditional expert approaches to technology delivery (as in "we are the experts, leave it to us") fail to acknowledge that expertise in technology now exists throughout an organisation - in fact expertise in technology in the context of specific challenges within the organisation are far more likely to exist outside of the IT group.

Traditional thinking labels this as "shadow IT" and makes it a scourge to be removed. But technology provision within organisations should increasingly be focused on being designed to enable others to create. Realistically if you don't they'll be doing it anyway (in fact, Microsoft Excel probably proves that it has always been happening). How many of your systems expose open APIs within your organisation?

Maybe it's the right time to start reframing the provision of technology within organisations as being about providing platforms upon which others can build. That's the stuff that has real value to be provided from the centre (and the services might not just be about the tech - the advice and skills to exploit them, as well as the frameworks and standards in which to use them).

Or maybe even we should start to take it one stage further and think about what are the platforms that an organisation needs upon which it can build: combining organisational design, workspaces, technology, professional expertise in finance and law. Maybe we are on the cusp of no longer having vertically structured supporting services like IT, HR, Finance, FM and Legal, but instead broader, more holistic enablers on which people and teams within and outside of our organisations can build. A move from being service providers to being platform providers.

A move to business as a platform.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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