The repositioning of applications and tools as ‘platforms’ is causing confusion and potentially creating new risk for customers. It also threatens to devalue genuine software platforms – those that companies can use as the basis for building new, connectable applications and features both now and in the future.Lately, we’re seeing everything from simple e-signature tools to project management applications, rendering tools, (eg Monday.com) to the Microsoft 365 suite being described as ‘platforms’. But they are not. If they only do one thing, are a suite of integrated purpose-built apps, or new capabilities cannot be built on top of them, then by the true definition they are not platforms.
The shift in terminology is a puzzling development, but in reality it’s software vendors trying to keep pace with the market. Specifically, they are responding to a realization among large enterprises that diverse portfolios of single-purpose applications are an inefficient and restrictive way to deliver business and/or process transformation. Given the choice of buying a ‘tool’, a ‘solution’ or a ‘platform’, businesses are opting increasingly for the last of these, believing that a platform represents something inherently more flexible and all-encompassing for their money.
Flexibility, agility and futureproofing is what all businesses are trying to achieve now. The ability to pivot, innovate and scale is critical to remaining competitive in a dynamic market – where customer preferences can change overnight, and disruptors can attack from any angle.
All of the above pre-supposes that a company can keep reinventing itself, supported by new software capabilities that meet the evolving needs of the business. An e-signature tool, project management solution, or even the wide-ranging applications that make up Microsoft 365, do not provide that. (The Microsoft suite is a mishmash of separate software products that were never designed to integrate and share content with each other, which have now been pushed together. It is not a platform.)
A genuine software platform is something much more foundational. By definition, it plays an underpinning role – providing a core framework ideally to support both specific, defined business processes and adaptable tools that can be used, ad hoc, during daily work.
The right platform should be robust in its ability to manage content and data (the building blocks for just about everything a business does) all in one place. And it should enable the company to harness those assets in new ways over time – via new or improved business processes, analytics, or means of content management and creation – supported by a solid yet flexible foundational layer.
If a software provider is claiming to offer a platform but does not fulfil these expectations, it is making false promises. It is hooking in customers, offering them flexible scope for new features in the future, when all along these are tied to their own development pipeline. Microsoft is one of the worst offenders here – promising the world, and suggesting that M365 allows businesses to build different solutions using Flow, Power BI and so on. In reality, these individual tools – which stand alone and require that users navigate to a new system – do no such thing.
What does good look like?
What most companies really need from a platform is the ability to create a collection of solutions which seamlessly support a business process and any ancillary tasks.
ClickUp is a good example, in the field of project management. Users can create different areas or workspaces and create project-related lists. They can also create workflows and view these in their choice of many different ways, as well as change all the data fields with any form of logic and connect to or create additional functionality. All of this allows companies to flex and support the way people instinctively want to work, whatever it is they are trying to do. If a new requirement or opportunity emerges tomorrow, the business can create a new workspace to accommodate that. The options are almost unlimited.
Time for a platform-based approach
There are a number of strong reasons why all of this matters today. First, companies recognize now that tackling digital transformation on a department-by-department basis limits the potential; and that optimal results will come from establishing an enterprise-wide foundation. If each part of a business does its own thing, or sets its own parameters, situations emerge where customer-facing teams can’t collaborate with the legal department, for example, because the latter’s strong security settings preclude access to their respective systems, hindering collaboration.
Inter-function or inter-company barriers like these have contributed to the soaring use of mainstream online facilities like Box, driven by users’ need to collaborate across boundaries when internal restrictions have otherwise prevented this. C-level decision-makers have ended up having to formalize use of these tools simply to take back control of associated information management and safeguarding.
In regulated markets like life sciences, companies are also looking to transform the way they operate on a broader scale. Up to now, many organizations have come at this by targeting pockets of process improvement activity, such as taking a more unified global approach to regulatory information management, or optimizing clinical trial management. But their endeavors would be much more impactful and efficient if they were enabled from the same foundational platform.
Veeva and a range of other newcomers have delivered a decent degree of innovation here, with capabilities built on top of Salesforce. However, their products are still road-mapped, enhanced, delivered and controlled as individual solutions, rather than providing the value of the Salesforce platform underneath.
Building a bright new future
Many observers are drawing a parallel between the conditions now and those in the early 1920s, when the world was emerging from another global pandemic and economic depression to enter a period of ‘roaring’ recovery and re-growth. If the same story unfolds over the next few years, companies need something to build this bright new future on.
A genuinely foundational software platform will give companies the ability to transform themselves in any direction. On this foundation, they can build innovative products and services that give them edge over competitors. They can develop new product lines at speed and adapt quickly to new opportunities.
Companies need to be more ambitious and holistic now, moving away from a piecemeal approach to digital process transformation. The more that diverse capabilities can be provided via a single foundational platform, the better for business.
Max Kelleher, COO, Generis