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Project to Platform: Hurdles on the Path to Digital Transformation

Jun 18, 2014

This is the first installment in a series of posts exploring the organizational challenges of evolving from a one-off API project to a digitally transformed organization.

Launching a digital transformation means a lot more than exposing an API for consumption or launching a customer facing app. Thankfully, enterprises that are proven digital leaders often have the advantage of a strong executive leader who drives a vision and defines clear enterprise objectives, which enables a host of supporting actions critical to success.

Such executive vision also influences the targeted selection, valuation, and investment in individual digital projects using a portfolio approach, and results in great experiences for end users, developers, and partners.

While this strategic, top down approach has been proven by our field research and experience, and by the research of other leading organizations in the field, the reality is often quite different.

Stalling at the start

Many enterprises begin their digital journey when a mid-level business unit leader or IT visionary takes advantage of a tactical opportunity or responds to a specific competitive threat, is able to break loose some budget, and attempts to champion a new approach.

As a result, it is often a part-time team that stands up the API platform and implements a small set of APIs that provide tactical services for that first project, to enable a mobile app, or a new website, or a new partner integration.   

But then what? What’s required to move from this one-off project toward becoming a digital business?

The digital champion knows full well that this first project is just the beginning, and that adopting an API platform signals a digital transformation that requires many more projects and many strong allies in both IT and in the lines of business. But what are the things they aren’t expecting?

The list is long, but based on our experience, some of the biggest shifts needed for even the most humble API program include four patterns: a rapid cadence, new partnerships that span traditional enterprise silos, focused internal education and retraining, and investment.

Cadence coordination

The digital ecosystem moves at a far faster pace than most enterprises do. One of the core advantages of implementing an API management layer is the decoupling of the new, fast-moving apps and partner integrations from the more legacy, slow-moving enterprise systems. For example, APIs enable developers and partners to onboard and produce value for end-customers in a fraction of the time and at much less expense than SOA-based integration.  

However, are the non-technical parts of your organization ready to accelerate as well? Typically, the annual roadmap of projects isn’t prepared to start bringing on new partners at such a pace; sales, marketing, finance, and product management are all still on the old calendar. In fact, speed to market and business agility is trapped behind a host of legacy processes to plan, resource, and execute.  

Often the platform investment that was cobbled together for a quick win does not generate the impact pitched to executives, not because of poor implementation, but because the rest of the organization is unable to take advantage of the new capability.

Organization: spanning silos

Fundamental to any digital transformation is the realization that APIs are products, not projects.  Like any other product, they only succeed with proper care and feeding. This includes a focus on customer (the developer) needs, sales and marketing support, product development, and management talent.  

Most IT teams don’t have these capabilities in house—and why would they? In fact, many large organizations have roles dedicated to communications between business and IT silos, to bridge those gaps. However, for them, without solid understanding of the strategic value of APIs to the entire portfolio of projects, API enablement is only one of many items on a never ending list of shifting priorities managed on multi-year roadmaps.

Yet in the fast-moving digital world, the enterprise must have an enabled, empowered, and cross-functional API team that spans silos, one that’s in direct communication with (internal and external) developers and business units at one end, and back-end IT teams at the other. This API team will generate a steady stream of new product ideas for the digital economy, but will miss their market windows if they’re managed with traditional processes.  

Instead, this API team needs to operate in a fast, responsive manner, supported by a small cadre of architects, software developers, and subject matter experts, and coordinated by a strong product manager, an API designer, and an API platform manager. With direct and daily communication channels to business units and app developers, the API team can operate at its optimum cadence: nimble and light enough to make and keep its API product offering relevant and fresh to the market.

In the next post, we’ll examine the importance of shedding organizational “muscle memory” and shaking up investment expectations in the quest for digital transformation.


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