Digital platforms & changing engagement models

Winning organisation of future will be deploying digital tech to facilitate stakeholder journeys

Ganesh Natarajan April 25, 2017 Last Updated at 22:39 IST

Digital transformation has come a long way in most corporations from the early days of exploring the cloud and moving from CAPEX to OPEX for the use of software applications and infrastructure. Implementation of business applications has moved from long duration projects involving sequential phases of analysis, design, development, testing and implementation to agile methods of prototyping, building and enhancing applications aligned to the ever- changing needs of users of information. In this journey, organisations have discovered a new way of deploying business functions and processes in a technology architecture — enter the era of digital platforms.

To understand the value and the difference a digital platform can provide to an enterprise, the easiest metaphor to use is the most obvious one — the railway platform. Created to enable various trains with passengers and materials on long journeys to stop and exchange passengers and goods, the platform itself presents a bustling multitude of salespersons, ticket checkers and signals to regulate the flow of traffic. If one were to view the business organisation of today through this lens, the enterprise of today is one where stakeholders are increasingly digital natives, prepared to shop from multiple vendors and design their own journeys towards the attainment of their goals. This is very true for customers, a little less so for employees and in some measure also valid for supply chain partners. The winning organisation of the future will be the one that deploys digital technology to facilitate stakeholder journeys and maximises wallet share and engagement time for mutual benefit.

So, what exactly is a digital platform? McKinsey & Co defines it as an integrated offering comprising applications, infrastructure and business processes that addresses specific needs of either verticals or horizontals, which can be deployed at multiple clients with minimum customisation. And continuing the analogy with the busy railway platform, the strength of the digital platform lies not only in serving the needs of different customers whose journey touches the platform but also the multiple vendors of utilities and services who can display their wares through the platform and be connected up as micro-services or APIs (application program interfaces). The micro-services enable decoupled application functionalities while the APIs are typically business services that are exposed within or outside the walls of the enterprise. This method increases flexibility and reduces the cost of deploying IT since bulky space and bandwidth hogging systems are obviated and new internal and external channels of engagement are opened up for external and internal customers.

To take the example of the Robotic Advisor for an Investment Advisory firm that was referred to in a previous column, a platform building approach would simply identify the information needs of an advisor as well as an end client who has to take decisions based on investment recommendations and the platform is developed in three phases. The first involves the creation of simple drawings or “mock-ups” built around a comprehensive eco-system of goals, for the client as well as the advisor. In the second phase, the circles of information finalised are converted into simple wire frames and user interfaces are designed in as simple and presentable a format as possible for the advisor and even simpler for the client. This results in the development of a minimum viable product (MVP) which will be the first version of the platform. The platform itself will keep evolving and the identification of micro-services and APIs, which make the information and knowledge content truly engaging and dynamic, will be an ongoing effort.

This approach, from concept to MVP is powering the development of many new vertical and horizontal digital platforms. The Kirloskar group in Pune has developed a series of platforms for tracking product through the demand and distribution chain, enabling the effectiveness of service personnel in the field and providing Internet of Things (IoT) support for shop floor manufacturing as well as lifelong field support of their oil engines. And on the human resource side, our investee company Skills Alpha has built a platform that serves as a career management, skills gap identification and skills path definition engine and then searches, stacks and serves up skilling modules using a series of micro-services. And cognitive capabilities are enhanced by interfacing with external APIs that add value to the learner.

Changing themes from user firms to service providers, this new reality of IT solution development and deployment will present huge challenges for IT services firms and software professionals to pivot to new skill sets. Agility experts and Scrum masters will be needed to deliver the three-phase approach discussed here, product and platform designers fully conversant with user experience and interface design and response time optimisation will be the new normal and dev-ops and digital architecture expertise will be an aspirational skill level for all software engineers of the future. The jury is out on whether IT firms are better served training tens of thousands of freshers or if a bunch of experienced project leaders should be pulled out for a few months and armed with the new skills needed while their roles are temporarily filled by others who in turn will go for re-skilling at some point. Whatever be the case, there are exciting times ahead!

Originally Published in Business Standard on April 25, 2017


Ganesh Natarajan is chairman of 5F World and the National KM & Business Transformation Committee of the CII