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Two chiefs, two approaches to digital transformation

While the definition of digital transformation is debatable, IT business leaders agree it's all about the data

On two consecutive days in London, two next-generation IT companies presented their respective visions of how business will go digital.

The founders of MuleSoft and Box both agreed seamless data access is key to enabling a business to work more digitally.

But given where the respective companies of the two chiefs operate – the latter focuses on cloud-based collaboration; the former on the management of application programming interfaces (APIs) – their routes to digitisation diverge.

This gives some insight into the gravitational forces pulling the industry.

On 23 May at the London Mulesoft Summit, the company’s founder, Ross Mason, spoke about the importance of providing timely access to data by opening up APIs.

Similarly, on 24 May, in his keynote at the Box World Tour conference in London, founder Aaron Levie said: “You cannot just lock-down data in a datacentre with perimeter-based security. We have to protect the flow of information.”

Mason described a situation many businesses face, with silos of data locked in legacy applications. “The reason why companies move so slowly is that it is really hard to get ahold of the data in the organisation,” he said. “It is easier to ignore the big problem, by copying the data and leaving the core alone. We require a mind shift, to break up complexity while delivering the innovation the business needs.”

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MuleSoft’s approach is about an entirely new approach to an enterprise architecture, based on opening up APIs with controls to provide a de-facto way to share information, using what the company calls an application network.

These APIs built up on a project-by-project basis are then made available to the business for reuse. “There is a new operating model for IT. It’s not only delivering projects, but also capabilities to the business,” said Mason. “You expose the capability and data that exists in your organisation through APIs and build an API marketplace.”

What this means for IT is that the business takes more ownership of the projects they need building, making use of the data exposed through the IT-maintained APIs in the company’s API marketplace.

In effect, the data stays where it is created, but is accessed via an application network; APIs span a network of applications in the business to extract the information requested.

Simplified access to corporate data

Box also wants to simplify access to corporate data that may be held in multiple system, both on-premise and in the cloud. “Data is strewn about in so many systems that there is no standard or consistent way to get work down,” said Levie. “Processes are fundamentally disconnected, so we replicate lots of information. This means it’s harder to secure data. How do you know where that data is?”

Box sees its role as part of an ecosystem of next-generation IT companies focused on delivering a new way of working. “We are moving to a world where there won’t be just a single platform,” he said.

The single platform view of IT, according to Levie, is the old world: the domain of IT firms like Microsoft and Oracle. Instead, Levie sees a world of software as a service, which will look like constellations that come together to deliver a business outcome.

“The future of IT is best-of-breed technology. There is a band of companies like Box, Octa, ServiceNow, Zoom and Slack, which are building a modern digital workplace,” he said. “To leverage this, there has to be no compromise. We have to be able to deliver a seamless experience as if it were one application experience.”

“You should be able to see the data in whatever platform you use,” said Levie. “Each platform has to be open, and needs integration and interoperability. Box’s job is to be the place to store content.”

Lightweight integration

The Metropolitan Police is a new user of Box, and is set to roll out the service to 50,000 users on 4 June. Met Police CIO Angus McCallum said that among the application areas for Box is enabling bus companies to upload CCTV footage to the Met Police if there is an incident involving a passenger or driver.

“Buses have CCTV, and if there is an incident on a bus, someone would have to collect a CD of the CCTV footage,” he said. “Now, it is automatically uploaded by the bus garage. Once it’s uploaded, it is copied onto a secure folder on Box, where a link is added.”

McCallum said the shared link of the CCTV footage is then added to an electronic case file, which is sent to the Crown Prosecution Service  if the perpetrator is being prosecuted.

Deep integration

Big Bus Tours has been on a route to digitisation for the past 18 months. Big Bus Tours executive vice-president of technology Richard Smith said the legacy systems were holding the company back from working effectively with travel agent partners. Most of its business came from street suppliers selling Big Bus tours as paper tickets.

“We were holding business back because we weren’t suitably digitised and some partners wouldn’t work with us because we couldn’t connect to APIs,” he said.

The company used MuleSoft to develop a trade API, which provides six key resources: product, availability, reservation, cancel reservation, booking and cancel booking. These APIs enable access to the core back-end system.

Smith said the company effectively built microservices that could be enabled across all its channels to market. It involved its partners in developing the APIs to get them on-board quickly so they would be able to integrate with Big Bus Tours in their own applications.

Start small

Box has taken a high-level approach to digitisation by providing file-sharing, while MuleSoft’s involves a deeper level of integration. However, both company chiefs regard quick wins as the best way to succeed at going digital.

With both the Met Police and Big Bus Company examples, the key thing to take away is that both IT heads focused on streamlining a single business process. What is apparent from the two London conferences is there are numerous technology-powered approaches an organisation can take to transform digitally.

Projects tend to start small and have a defined business outcome. Even if a project is unsuccessful, there is a general consensus across the IT industry that the lessons learned from a failed project should be fed into future initiatives.

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