Many C-suite leaders believe innovation starts with their corporate IT staff. That is true to a point. But if you’re only thinking about the developers you employ, rather than the ones you can access, you may be neglecting some of today’s most powerful business strategies.
Similarly, though developers are still essential for specific types of workloads, they’re not your only source of technological innovation. We now have tools that enable nontechnical employees to optimize business processes, build innovative apps, and improve corporate productivity.
Success in today’s challenging and unpredictable conditions demands that we move faster while doing more with less. And to get there, enterprise leaders need to challenge traditional workforce divisions, such as technical versus nontechnical. Everyone must rethink where innovation comes from.
Understanding the importance of the interface
Many layers of technological complexity underpin this process, but conceptually, much of it boils down to a simple idea: the interface.
Interfaces have largely driven the proliferation of computing. Three decades ago, if someone had a computer in their home, doing anything with it probably involved inputting DOS commands. By the ’90s, graphical interfaces made interacting with computers much less technologically daunting. Today, touch and voice interfaces let people do increasingly powerful things via increasingly simple operations.
The mechanisms and tools that let enterprises build applications and create new digital workflows have evolved similarly. Programmers don’t have to write as much code as they used to in order to build an app, and some developers don’t have to code at all. There’s a lot of complexity beneath the interfaces where app building occurs, but with the development of new tools, that complexity doesn’t have to be part of the app-building experience.
By focusing on the interfaces between digital assets and the workforce, enterprise leaders can empower more people to innovate in more ways.
As a result, we can spend less time having to build something of low value from the ground up, and more time on higher-value innovation. We can more readily activate existing digital assets, such as data and functionality, for new use cases. By focusing on the interfaces between digital assets and the workforce, enterprise leaders can empower more people to innovate in more ways.
Application programming interfaces, or APIs, are the primary interfaces that sit between digital assets and the developers who use them to create new digital experiences and business processes. APIs provide a consistent way for developers to access and combine services, data, and functionality—all without being burdened by backend complexity. By putting APIs in front of various systems, enterprises can make the value captured in those systems more easily accessible and useful. The interface, in other words, abstracts away the complexity so that the underlying value can be more easily harnessed.
Using APIs to accelerate co-innovation
Enterprises are increasingly turning to APIs not just for application modernization or to accelerate their development cycles, but also to enlist co-innovators outside their organizations, whether that means corporate partners or the independent developers whose efforts populate app stores. Over half of CIOs say APIs are “important” or “very important” to partnerships or ecosystem productivity.
For example, Indonesia’s Bank BRI, a Google Cloud customer, has externalized APIs in order to generate new revenue channels. By making their credit scoring capabilities available via an API as a paid service, Bank BRI has cultivated a digital network of “branchless” agents throughout the country, opening up banking services to citizens in the country’s most remote regions. This API monetization has contributed $50 million in revenue to the bank’s bottom line. And because the API provides a simple means of letting outsiders access its digital assets, Bank BRI has reduced the time they need to onboard new partners from as much as six months to as little as one hour.
Many other Google Cloud customers are pursuing similar strategies. Pitney Bowes and AccuWeather, for instance, both offer a range of digital services to external developers via APIs, enabling those developers to build apps around the companies’ respective capabilities.
We see these sorts of business models—oriented around ecosystems of software from many different companies and communicating through the common interface of APIs—as increasingly important levers for unlocking new growth.
Building applications and automating business processes—without coding
APIs are not the only important interface. New tools are emerging that abstract programming into code-free experiences.
No-code development fits a strong emerging need. Enterprise leaders frequently tell me that they want to empower their line-of-business workers to build applications, since these people are closest to challenges in the field, but they also want to preserve the guardrails prescribed by IT. Many analysts see this embrace of “citizen developers” accelerating. According to Gartner’s October 2019 report “The Future of Apps Must Include Citizen Development,” by 2023, “the number of active citizen developers at large enterprises will be at least four times the number of professional developers.”
This movement is not about replacing traditional developers so much as it’s about redistributing innovation responsibilities. At most enterprises, developer resources are strained, and many line-of-business needs compete for attention with other initiatives, leading to some projects inevitably sitting for months or years in the IT backlog. Sophisticated projects require significant developer expertise, and no-code tools free up IT to work on these projects while also enabling nontechnical staff to build the apps they need.
AppSheet from Google Cloud, for example, lets users build apps without coding and can connect to data sources ranging from G Suite and mySQL to Salesforce and corporate databases exposed via APIs. This capability has helped many enterprises to significantly accelerate application development. At Solvay, an advanced materials and specialty chemicals company, around 400 citizen developers have created over 1,000 apps that support more than 4,000 end users around the world.
Going forward, we expect no-code platforms to connect to more data sources through APIs and further expand what employees without formal development training can do. One exciting example: In addition to creating line-of-business apps, we’re introducing no-code tools that can also help automate processes, bringing together AI and no-code to let users build both rich apps and powerful automations in the same unified platform. Consider how sales teams are more valuable cultivating customer relationships than repetitively updating the CRM system, inputting clients into billing systems, or entering data into sales metrics and monitoring systems. With a no-code platform such as AppSheet, the sales team could connect to data sources and automate these processes, thus unlocking time for activities that have a direct impact on revenue generation.
Enterprises need a business application platform
In many ways, enabling innovation throughout an enterprise requires putting the right interfaces between digital assets and different groups of people. APIs are the foundation for this, but organizations need many components—what we call a business application platform—to bring it all together.
A no-code platform creates opportunities that expand what a traditional API program can deliver, and a no-code program that draws from a strong API program can make more digital assets available for innovation. No-code tools and APIs may be intended for different parts of the workforce, but below the interfaces, they are related concepts.
And whether it’s an API or a no-code tool, the interfaces need to be managed. These interfaces are the doors to a company’s data—and no one leaves their doors unlocked if they have valuable things inside. IT needs to be able to control who can access digital assets and what they can do with them, but it also needs to make access self-serve and fast, since making value accessible to more people is the entire point. This means enterprises need an API gateway for security and monitoring, at minimum, and they may also need additional management tools for monetizing APIs, creating a developer portal, extracting insights from API usage data, and other more advanced use cases.
This full set of resources—APIs, no-code, and robust management and analytics capabilities—gives an organization the foundation it needs for agility and resilience as competitive dynamics continue to change and disruptions continue to unfold. Companies need to be able to insert their valuable data and functionality into new customer experiences, to develop applications faster, to connect legacy systems to artificial intelligence services and other new technologies, to embrace new partners, and more. They don’t just need digital transformation as we thought of it just a year ago—they need accelerated digital transformation. We see the business application platform as a roadmap for getting there.
Get started: Discover how Google Cloud is investing in the category of business application platform to help enterprises build resilience and accelerate innovation. Learn more about new products and features, or explore the related sessions airing this week at Google Cloud Next ’20: OnAir.