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The heat is on for today’s organisations to get ‘agile’. To react quickly, to keep pace with dynamic customer demands, to gain an edge in disrupted markets. Technology is one means many are using, recognising it as a crucial foundation for agility, and businesses are pushing ahead with modernisation initiatives and large-scale transformation strategies. However, organisations are increasingly finding that for technology to truly enable a business, it needs to empower individuals across functions, not just in IT teams. It is these domain experts, or ‘citizens’, who are on the front line of the business, know what great customer experience looks like, and are fast becoming the first people involved in defining and creating new initiatives to do business better. And they are seeking access to and use of data and systems to get the job done.
When it comes to tools and platforms to support them in pursuing new initiatives, there is no shortage today: SaaS solutions have helped lower the barrier to adopting and building new applications; open APIs can pave the way for improved collaboration; social data from platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be a quick source of customer insights and feedback; mobile is well-suited to provide an intimate channel to reach customers. Using these technologies in concert can yield rich business value, providing the organization can surmount the integration challenge.
The challenge can be summarised thus: with business users looking to build new software solutions themselves, to create new apps and services for their teams and customers, they need to connect existing data, applications and services, requiring capabilities for a more seamless integration between legacy systems and new applications and infrastructure. And, as IDC outlined in a recent study on agile integration, most organisations are running multiple application clouds, rather than having one dominant cloud, so data and business logic must be exchanged across clouds and locations.
To meet this challenge themselves and run with their own projects without depending heavily on IT teams, domain experts are becoming ‘citizen integrators’. This is a growing subject of conversation and recently the focus of a paper by Gartner, ‘Citizen Integrators Bring Application and Data Integration Into a Common Focus’, which argues that ‘business users are increasingly leveraging integration software as a service for simple integration tasks.’ It also finds that ‘as their requirements typically do not distinguish between application and data integration, application leaders must be prepared to address demand for frictionless integration.’
How a citizen becomes an integrator
Frictionless integration – how can this be achieved so that people with bright ideas within an organization can make them reality? How can a business make its data available for, say, a business analyst who is collecting data from patients, or for its people in marketing, finance, HR or anywhere else, to use and integrate with their new innovations?
These citizens would not necessarily possess deep technical skills in data and have typically needed extensive support from development teams to be able to use the tools they need, like traditional – usually highly complex – business process management solutions. So how can they be empowered to carry out their roles? What sort of integration tools are available and are they easy to use?
The good news is developer communities and software vendors are honing in on this need and the industry is now seeing technologies fit for this purpose. Lightweight, cloud-based tools are emerging to help businesses foster collaboration between IT staff and citizen integrators to help them quickly create new applications. These tools are built on the concept of easy access to standard APIs so they can interface with systems as needed. If they are open source and support open standards, so much the better for accessibility and interoperability.
Cloud-based iPaaS (integration platform-as-a-service) solutions are available to support application, data and process integration projects. These tools enable citizen integrators to connect software and create their own pipelines, without needing to outsource the work to developers. Businesses can find solutions that provide a visualisation of all data streams – pipelines, detailed actions, transformations and other elements for integration – accessible via a web browser. Platforms that are low-code help users to build solutions faster by removing complexity; they provide more graphical or templated elements that can be assembled without the need for coding. Some web-based platforms come with a set of predefined visual tools citizens can use to build digital integration services.
Key tenets for empowering the citizen integrator include having the business logic visible and understandable to business and IT users alike; having a user interface that is intuitive, making it easier to introduce new products and services without lengthy development cycles; and having the capability to automate previously manual, time-consuming processes. With these types of tools at hand, we expect citizen integrators to flourish and their ranks to grow.
It is worth pointing out that IT still plays a crucial role in supporting these innovations, as well as defining the parameters for ongoing innovation. This includes evaluating infrastructure requirements for apps, managing and maintaining them, ensuring they meet compliance and regulation requirements. The citizen integrator approach can implicate the consumption of public APIs and open data, so IT teams hold a vital role in making sure that governance, monitoring and security are top priorities.
Agile integration in action
Looking at the citizen integrator approach in the context of what organisations are trying to do with integration, it is often an implementation of an overarching ‘agile integration’ strategy. Agile integration is associated with continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) within development, i.e., based on the build environment. However, agile integration can also be viewed in terms of platform architecture. That is, as an architectural approach that takes advantage of agile methods and flexible microservices architectures so that applications and data across multiple systems and services can be integrated and adapted faster. IDC’s paper suggests that successful agile integration strategies are those that prioritise the following: microservices to enable modular development of apps, containers for deployment portability, standardization of service interfaces with APIs and API management, and hybrid integration for decentralized connectivity.
Take Motability Operations, which is starting to reap rewards from adopting an agile integration methodology. Motability Operations leases accessible vehicles to meet customers’ disability needs, and as a growing business, recently sought to modernise its lease management, finance and customer relationship management (CRM) systems, integrating legacy systems and applications. It looked to simplify the solution architecture by reducing the number of systems used and consolidating core processes and data onto one shared platform. The company’s IT leaders wanted an integration solution that developers could quickly learn to use, and where the resulting platform requires fewer lines of code to connect different services and systems. This enables people to get faster access to customer information and other data, so helping them be more productive and engaged. The platform is a flexible foundation for future innovation.
Another Insurance firm Aviva Italy is another great example. In order to get a unified, consistent view of each customer, as well to deliver digital services out to customers more efficiently, it created a customer portal, MyAviva. The supporting integration platform it put in place is lightweight and flexible, enabling rapid integration across the extended enterprise, collecting and exposing data from different pools of siloed customer information within the business. Aviva Italy now has a single repository and access point for data and can be faster supporting new requests from the business. Aviva Italy reports it has experienced up to 30 percent greater efficiency with the MyAviva portal compared with its previous application environment.
Power to the people, value to the business
For some organisations, opening up IT rights to business users might require a cultural adjustment. But doing so is becoming a practical reality. Because integration provides an essential fabric for delivering new features and capabilities more quickly, integration platform offerings need to meet users where they are, whether they are developers or not. Handing business citizens the keys to the integration ignition will help them drive differentiated offerings to customers and speed the journey to innovation and competitive edge.
The author Erica Langhi, is senior solution architect, Red Hat