An Interview with Cohaesus Board Member Julian Browne
Under the covers, a slick digital experience is all about the ability to share data. However, established businesses understandably must rely on legacy systems that have high friction when it comes to playing nice with others. We sat down with Julian Browne, Cohaesus’ Advisory Board Member, to discuss the importance of platforms in the digitisation of customer journeys and how existing legacy systems can be updated to become a bit more friction-free.
Importance of platforms when digitising the customer journey
Digitising customer journeys is as important for big enterprises as it is for new start-ups. This is because digitisation results in a seamlessly integrated online and offline consumer experience where customer needs are met. However, to successfully digitise customer journeys, businesses of all sizes need to link up applications to reduce that friction.
“My definition of a platform is quite a simple one,” says Julian Browne. “Essentially, a platform is a basis around which to share data in a controlled way. We’re living in a world where nobody knows what customers will want in six months, let alone three years. Companies need platforms that are flexible enough to support all of the micro-pivots they’ll need to execute.”
“It’s a cliché these days, but a good example of this is Amazon. In the 1990s, they were a relatively small online bookshop. Then, around the year 2000, Amazon stopped trying to ‘just’ build a bookshop. Rather than directly mapping what they thought customers might want into a technical plan, they instead started thinking about their business in an open and shareable way.”
“They built a more abstract platform that could adapt to changing needs. The result was not just a massive ecommerce platform but a cloud hosting business that allowed anyone to cheaply build and test new ideas right on top of Amazon’s infrastructure.”
Julian goes on to say, “My favourite platform story, again a bit of a cliché, is the rise of Facebook. In mid 2008, Myspace had 50% market share of social network traffic. Facebook was growing, but clearly at the time just an also-ran. At the end of 2008 Facebook overtook Myspace and just six months later Myspace had effectively disappeared from the map and Facebook was the dominant force.”
“The story behind that flip is a simple one: Myspace hired smart people from top universities and developed a roadmap based on a customer plan. And they executed against it perfectly. They built an application that did what they thought their customers wanted.”
“Facebook took a different approach. Their strategy accepted that, on the web, you can never really predict customer needs. Instead, they built a platform to efficiently share data in a controlled manner, and let the market lead the way.”
It’s no coincidence that during this time Facebook launched games like Farmville, which were the factors that caused people to leave Myspace for Facebook. However, critically Farmville was not created by Facebook. Instead, Facebook effectively leased access to a network of information that allowed others to adopt all the risk and Facebook all the control, with success being shared.
The problem with legacy platforms when sharing data
The success Facebook and Zynga had with Farmville illustrates an important feature of an effective platform: data is shared internally and externally. Customer experience isn’t limited to a single application. It’s across all applications. Existing enterprises that rely on legacy platforms have a problem here. The very rationale for these platforms was to centralise and master data internally in one place. Sharing wasn’t on the agenda.
“SAP is the classic legacy platform,” Julian says. “It’s expensive and takes years to install and comes from an era when data consolidation and process optimisation were the driving forces for adoption. Typically, companies that bought products like SAP had 10-15 other legacy systems with customer data spread all over the place. The business case for implementing it was to have all that valuable data in one place. This sounds like it should make data easier to share but that’s not how the real world works – consumers of data want it in the format that’s right for them and that means there will be 10-15 different ways to present it, enrich it and transform it. So now shared access is stuck behind a centralised bottleneck of people & process.”
One of the major benefits of a frictionless platform is that you can gain customer insight using your data. In order to do that, you need to run algorithms that slice and dice data in clever ways, cluster your customers into cohorts and then treat each customer according to their cohort. With legacy platforms, this kind of data analysis and seamless integration of the customer journey is a huge challenge.
“Legacy vendors are in a desperate game of catch-up,” Julian points out. “With AWS, you can put your data anywhere in the world and make it frictionless to get that data out. If you have a legacy platform you’ll need to buy plugins, add-ons, go on training courses and pay for consultants. You might have the money but you won’t have the time. While your enterprise architects work out the new governance model, your competitors are taking your customers.”
“If you’re a business with a digital strategy,” Julian says, “what you really want is for your online experience to permeate the entire business. That means sharing data not just to the website but to third-parties, and interdepartmental teams like billing, procurement, customer service, and finance.”
Working with legacy platforms
Firstly, it doesn’t make sense to start over. Things may be desperate but nobody can take two years out to refactor their entire IT infrastructure. Even if it were possible, the world would have changed so much in that time the risk of being the next Myspace is very real.
“In my experience, rewriting from scratch doesn’t work,” Julian says. “It’s seductive because it feels like the ‘get out of jail free’ card, but you have to have some sympathy for businesses that are heavily invested in large legacy systems. As much as we’d like to, throwing away the systems you don’t like is not a reasonable strategy. And that’s as much a political and financial statement as it is technical. You have to start from where you are.”
“If you have a legacy system that needs to learn to share, you should think more broadly than simply buying more vendor-ware. More plugins and add-ons probably won’t help. Sooner or later someone will sell you a magic data bus that connects all your systems and now you’ll have an even more complex system to hold you back. Nobody has ever been smart enough to create one layer to rule them all. Lord of the Rings architectures lead to bad places.”
Julian advises you simply prioritise systems in terms of their data value to the customer experience and wrap them with consumable services on an as-needs basis. Listen to what your customers are telling you – if they want better self-service online billing, then expose controlled access to your billing system first and make it shareable not just to the self-service portal but to potentially any trusted party.
“How then do you get multiple systems to look like ‘a platform’?” Julian asks. “You just repeat the process for each system, letting standards and controls evolve along the way. Adopt the conventions that work and discard what holds you back. That way you’ll accelerate your progress over time, not slow it down. You may not get all the benefits of a bespoke-built platform right away but you will stay in business. This is about buying time, not building cool tech.”
Working system by system has another benefit, Julian says: “People who work with a particular system know a lot about how it operates. They know all the domain rules and the history. When you pair them with a technical team whose objective it is to wrap that system in sharing services you create a group that fully understands how to go about it. There are only three magic ingredients when redesigning a legacy platform: people who have domain experience, software engineers with technical expertise, and a system with valuable data trapped inside. The rest is letting them get on with it. What you’ll end up with is a set of services that are technically sound but also fulfil the needs of customers in a way that makes sense to the business.”
An effective digital strategy requires the whole business to work as a choreographed platform. Hand-offs between systems in the platform require that data be shared freely and in a controlled manner. That’s all a platform is: a basis on which to share data. The payoff is customers feel the benefits of a joined-up experience.
Building a platform from scratch can be a great thing, but it’s not always possible. However, we can learn from the many great examples where this has been done to understand what works and what the critical features are. The good news is they can all be applied to legacy systems, but usually the route is not to go and spend more money with vendors but instead build on what you have. After all, big companies got to be big companies by doing something well. The only thing that counts is customer experience. Apps and websites are transient things that embody the experience you want today, they are not permanent. The focus should be on what powers all the experiences you might imagine in the future – the flexible platform underneath.