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By Dr. Steve Hodgkinson, CIO,Department of Health & Human Services in Melbourne, Australia
What is this jumble of buzzwords? Proliferative innovation is one of the CIO’s key roles - enabling business innovation via a proliferation of new business systems. Platform+Agile is the means to do it.
In times gone by the CIO's 'ICT Strategy 101' mantra was to centralise/standardise/rationalise to create a Standard Operating Environment (SOE). Fewer moving parts equals a safer, less costly, more integrated enterprise ICT environment. Shared services are a good illustration of this logic. 'Less is more' - you can have any colour as long as it is black.
Innovation, however, requires new things ... a proliferation of new solutions that create points of differentiation. More is more. Users expect more ... and faster.
The CIO, as usual, is caught in an integration vs. differentiation dilemma. Integration is necessary to enable enterprise-wide information sharing and seamless business processes (and can itself be a source of differentiation and competitive advantage). Integration, however, takes time, focus and discipline. Individual business units can’t always wait for the integrated enterprise solution and sometimes pursue strategies to differentiate through local innovations, creating fragmentation and a proliferative sprawl of new business systems. (Sigh!).
The rise of the as-a-service economy enabled by cloud computing is fuelling this proliferation, with business units able to implement new software as a service applications with increasing ease and speed.
It turns out, however, that the biggest innovation of all is to work out how to embrace proliferation … run with it … harness it … manage it in real time to enable differentiation ... rather than trying to stomp it out in the name of integration. Innovation, after all, is why we are here.
I use the term Proliferative Innovation to explain that an enterprise’s innovation agenda must be founded on embracing a proliferation of technologies, rather than seeking to constrain technology choices to those that are convenient for the ICT department.
A huge advantage of platforms is that they stay current
But how can a CIO balance the apparently conflicting imperatives to get onto the front foot with proliferative innovation? The answer is to think bigger than your own enterprise. The cause of the problem is also its solution. Cloud services.
A cloud service like Amazon, Google, Microsoft Azure or Salesforce, is a massive centralised global shared service platform. These cloud services have effectively created ubiquitous global SOEs that transcend individual enterprises. The SOE platform is no longer in the hands of the CIO. The ICT departments of even the largest enterprises now need to acknowledge the futility of attempting to establish internal application platforms in competition with the market leading cloud services. The focus needs to shift to becoming an intelligent consumer of cloud services to drive innovation. Paradoxically, embracing this massive centralisation liberates enterprises to devolve innovation.
In my department we call this approach Platform+Agile. This is founded on a ‘cloud first’ policy stance based on strategic adoption of several of the market leading cloud service platforms. Platforms enable more agile approaches to projects because most of the required functionality already exists. A new business system is created by configuring a platform which is already operationally proven, trusted and sustainable – rather than procuring and customising new (relatively unknown) technologies and applications.
A huge advantage of platforms is that they stay current. The shared platform model and the pooled investment enabled by large global customer bases means that the functionality, performance and security of the platforms are being continuously modernised. As a consumer, the enterprise ICT department is just ‘going along for the ride’ rather than having invest in building and sustaining its own platforms.
A platform-centric approach also enables in-house ICT teams to develop deep-repeat expertise in the platforms and avoid unnecessary and risky application-by-application ‘mad science experiment’ procurements (which often amount to risky leaps of faith to procure new and unfamiliar technologies and counter-party relationships). Better the devil you know.
My team has delivered an impressive portfolio of projects over the past two years using the Microsoft Azure and Salesforce platforms, which has enabled the ICT department to ‘get back its mojo’. Small systems can be delivered in as little as six weeks, larger more integrated applications in six months. No worries!
I summarise these more agile mindsets, methods and platforms as ‘Platform+Agile’ to emphasise the point that the new platforms are an enabler of more agile ways of building new business systems. A platform enables agility. It accelerates project start-up and project delivery. With a minimum of pragmatic technical and information architecture thinking, and clever use of APIs, the Platform+Agile approach also enables satisfactory systems integration.
The successful enterprises of the future will be those that embrace the integration vs differentiation contradiction that is inherent in proliferative innovation. Sustainable innovation requires both – which Platform+Agile can deliver.