As software marketers reposition applications and tools as platforms, companies are not always getting genuine platforms that they can use as the basis for building new, connectable applications and features. Max Kelleher, COO at Generis, charts a course through the hype.
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 partly about software vendors trying to keep pace with the market. Specifically, they are responding to a realisation 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 will deliver flexibility, agility and futureproofing.
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.
So 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. Any special parameters (eg to ensure security or information compliance) can be set by IT, but everything else is open for teams themselves to define and modify.
Collaboration is key
There are a number of strong reasons why all of this matters today. First, companies recognise 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.
Companies need to be more ambitious and holistic now, moving away from a piecemeal approach to digital process transformation. Companies need a new ‘edge’, enabled by technology. They will need to be able to develop new product lines quickly, and pivot the business quickly as new opportunities emerge. Putting in place a genuinely foundational software platform, for spinning up new business applications and facilities quickly and efficiently, will give companies that ability.