An Approach to Digital Platform Engineering

Case Study

A Balanced Approach to Digital Platform Engineering

The Challenge

While Ness focuses primarily on product & platform engineering using its user-centric Ness Connected approach, it is very aware of how pure Research & Development encourages smart people to explore the art of the possible. This blog explores a balanced approach to digital platform engineering.

A quick story: In the late 50s researchers at three US companies (Texas Instruments, Fairchild Semiconductor and Sprague Electric Company) each solved a different challenge around further miniaturising and integrating together a number of transistors. A group at Fairchild produced the first Integrated Circuit in 1960. However, the Vice President of Marketing at the time viewed this initiative as a waste of company resources and thought that the project should be terminated. This led to the core development team leaving to form other companies. Fairchild quickly understood the extraordinary IP it now owned, and in 1961 produced the first commercial ICs. These were used in ballistic missiles and early Apollo spacecraft, and paved the way for full commercialisation.

Why is this delve into history important? Because there was no overt user need to create an integrated circuit. There was no service design or detailed user needs. Nothing like this had existed before, and very few people could even envisage the concept, it had no natural predecessors. Known physical limitations precluded such an idea. It is only through pure R&D that a highly disruptive technology emerged, that has literally transformed the world we live in.

We are all accustomed to believing that the best digital platforms are those that have been designed to address specific user needs or latent desires. There are countless examples of these, from Uber to Spotify. The innovative step for each was actually the business idea (specifically establishing a business to address a perceived need, and not identifying or creating the actual need itself). The underlying technology to deliver that business model was somewhat of a given. The bad old days of “build it and they will come” has been replaced with a user-centric approach to almost every business innovation.

There have however been more recent examples of where technological innovation has created entirely new capabilities and markets. Take the Apple iPhone itself, and also the Apps ecosystem it catalysed. The point being that while user needs are important, from time to time new major technology revolutions drive change that users will flock to use even though they may not have ever considered “needing” it.

While new business ideas can drive the direction of technology, the opposite also stands up to scrutiny. New technologies can create an environment for new business initiatives, and the volume and speed of these new technologies emerging is not always the result of traditional R&D, but is happening on a daily basis. Engineers around the world are experimenting with an almost infinite permutation of various technologies. It is not clear or certain which ones will arrive to find an audience. An example of this is the plethora of mash-ups that have been created by developers using location visualisation, without a clear demand for the end solution.

The Solution

There needs to be a balance between taking the needs of users into account, and understanding the art of the possible that new technologies can deliver.

Very few organisations spend much time understanding the potential of new technology innovation and how this could impact existing user-centric platforms and processes. An example of this is the rise of machine learning using artificial intelligence to correlate very large disparate sets of data to derive insights. Rather than finding a needle in a haystack, this is more like finding a needle in thousands of different hay (and other) stacks spread around the world. But computing power and new technologies now makes this search economically viable. Business stakeholders can ask new technologies to address a particular need “Improve our sales revenue”, but rarely ask “is there a new technology capability that could significantly impact our business”. Were they to look into the future they might identify how the world will work then and how they might succeed in it.

There is a natural tension between user needs and technical capabilities. Most approaches to anything these days start top-down from a business needs perspective, and end up at the implementation level leveraging the best technology available at the time. But there is also an argument to look at basic technology innovation – what can be done today or tomorrow that could not be done yesterday – and then work upwards to understand the impact on existing business processes.

An R&D question framed to address this would be: “Are there any new or anticipated capabilities that can tell me which of my customers are going to remain loyal to my brand for the next 4 years, and for those that are not tell me specifically what could I do for each of them to reverse their future plan to switch brands?”. The answer to this question is not just big data and machine learning, it is asking about new ways of leveraging these technologies or new technologies that haven’t been tried before. A lot of people talk about innovation, however avoid that critical “art of the possible” innovative step.

Most organisations simply aren’t capable of following this approach. Their ingrained experience of doing this in a particular way, and best practice wisdom, precludes them from seeing beyond the limits of their existing knowledge. As was the case for the Vice President of Marketing at Fairchild.

One way to address this is to re-engineer the process used to create new digital platforms. Rather than using standard Discovery and Envision phases to convert user needs into implementable technology, there has to be room for a reverse workflow as well. What technology exists today that could enable as-yet unexpressed user needs? In many cases there are latent user needs that are never surfaced. People rarely express their inner thoughts in areas they know are impractical or unrealisable for fear of being judged by their peers.

There is a famous phrase attributed to Henry Ford “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” explaining why he built motor cars. This HBR article has a slightly different analysis, and summarises some of the thinking expressed above, “One side vehemently argues the merits of innovating vis-à-vis customer feedback; the other argues that true innovation is created by singularly gifted visionaries who ignore customer input and instead manufacture innovation based solely on their prophetic vision for a better future”.

A valid qualifying question to ask in this context is whether people still need these faster horses – do we need to travel anymore? Is there a technology today that would remove this burden? Video conferencing and collaboration tools go some way towards removing the need for face-to-face contact. But in an ideal world we would just use a matter transporter – wait, that’s physically impossible. Isn’t it? While matter transportation may be out of our reach for the foreseeable future, and perhaps for ever, there may be other technologies that could revolutionise our need to travel anywhere. They just haven’t been invented yet. As we continue to augment our bodies with technology, we may reach a point where our brains cannot distinguish between the physical and virtual world. Where we augment the five senses to the point where our brain for example cannot tell the difference between actually eating a meal and the senses being electronically stimulated to replicate that feeling exactly. Science fiction or future state reality?

What is the point being made? Simply that being just a follower of current approaches won’t always win the day. Almost every company is now heavily focused on customer-experience led platforms. They are all slavishly doing things the same way. This is of course not wrong in itself. But very few are also looking at things from the other angle – what technology innovation exists today, and what could it conceivably allow us to do?

And as noted above, ingrained best practice thinking mandates against the technology-led approach. Often the only way to cover this is to institutionalise a process that requires adherence to both a user-centric starting point alongside a technology innovation centric starting point. The two are naturally in conflict; it is from solving the tension between them that real brilliance emerges.

At Ness we have already addressed the conflict between the creative, user-centric, service-designed world traditionally inhabited by design agencies, and the software implementation world inhabited by software engineering companies, using the Ness Connected approach that already takes technical feasibility as an input to any new platform design. This can be summarised as “Design the right product, then build the product the right way”. A further evolution of this is to combine the Ness Connected approach with the technology innovation approach practiced by pure R&D labs.

Ness has an Office of the CTO that has identified a number of CTO Associates spread through the organisation, who along with Ness’s solution architects, are experts in specific technology areas. These experts bring a technology point of view to bear with an R&D mind-set, creating POCs to explore the art of the possible. They are fervently enthusiastic about their areas of expertise, and can often help identify emerging technology innovation that can significantly shape what otherwise would have just been a thoughtfully designed and customer-centric technology platform. While they have other roles, they do provide an R&D capability in this focussed area.

For many of Ness’s clients it is through this blend of Ness’s proven Connected methodology and the passion of Ness’s CTO Associates and Solution Architects that truly brilliant digital platforms of the future are being created today.