We may not yet know what will comprise the so-called new normal, especially the way businesses may work and the tools that may require once they get there, but it is fair to guess that quite a bit of what is currently taken as the ‘standard IT environment’ – the tools and applications currently taken for granted – may not have a role to play.
One reason this may be the case is that many of the current tools and applications will no longer work the way businesses will need/want to work, particularly if lessons currently being learned under the pressures applied by the pandemic remain relevant once a degree of normality is being established.
This line of thinking was the key underpinning at the recent Appian European Conference, especially during the opening keynote presentation – and subsequent conversation with diginomica – from CEO Matt Calkins. Indeed, while he didn’t totally avoid the opportunity to indulge in a paean of praise for Appian’s mix of low-code application building, AI, workflow and robotic process automation tools, he also launched into quite the call-to-arms for the IT user community to be brave enough to follow its heart and go with whatever tools and applications represented best of breed for the tasks they really need to see achieved, rather than slide into one of the silos of safety readily offered as solutions by the mega-corp services providers.
Change and keep changing
Calkins highlighted one of the key changes the pandemic has brought to the fore and is highly likely to play a significant role into the future. This is the pace of change that is now required. The relationships companies have not only with their customers, but also their employees – where they need to take as much care of employee trust and health as they do customers’ desire to buy – is driving a strong requirement for change:
The spotlight of 2020 fell on technology that allows you to build an important application, the kind of application that could save your business, save your relationships, that kind of application, build that quickly.
Once built it also has to work both quickly and reliably, and that now means delivering an harmonious mix of the capabilities of Artificial/Augmented Intelligence, robotic process automation, workflow and, to call it something, that human touch. The trick, he suggested, is the ability to leverage the strengths of each element in order to meet the specific needs of each business.
According to Calkins, the best way of achieving that is to use the best – by whatever metric is considered most appropriate – of breed application needed to perform a required task. This has long been an idealised goal, of course, but it has always fallen at the first hurdle of integration. Getting disparate applications to work together at all can require feats of engineering. Getting them to stay working together as they are individually upgraded can be an even more complex task. This is why the pre-packaged applications suites – the silos to which Calkins refers – have grown to be so popular. But Appian sees a way to get beyond this:
We think we’re the first and only automation platform that is open. And by that I mean that out of the box, we've got Appian workflow, Appian RPA, and Google AI, and you can use it immediately. But most importantly, in addition we support whatever technologies you may have chosen. If you've got RPA from UiPath, Blue Prism, any of the leaders, that's going to work just as well in our framework as if it were our own technology. That's the degree of commitment that we've got to openness and working with the leaders in these departments. And also with all of the AI leaders: maybe you prefer Microsoft AI or Amazon AI to the Google that came out of the box with Appian. Well, that's fine, it'll work just as well.
To arms, to arms
There is an additional downside to opting for the tech giants and their silos in Calkins’ view. Many of those companies have benefited from the pandemic. According to his data, the Top 10 tech giants have increased their collective valuation by $3.4 trillion just through the first two thirds of 2020. This compares to the GDP of the entire United Kingdom, which his figures put at $2.7 trillion for last year. He noted that this is just a growth in valuation over 2020 so far, not a growth in revenue, which he suggested has not grown at a similar rate.
His point is that such levels of valuation create a situation where customers negotiate with such companies, especially if already users, from a negative position for the perception is that they have significant leverage over the customers, which have become hooked on their platforms and technology stacks, and it is now becoming hard to get rid of them. What is arguably worse is that these companies also effectively control the crown jewels of every customer – particularly those companies that offer increasingly comprehensive cloud-based services:
Just to pick an example, certain cloud companies are more valuable than the GDP of most nations on Earth. It's not because of their revenue, it's because they've got our data, and investors are counting on them to keep it and use it against us, every time they negotiate. I’ve got to say, there is another way.
That other way also has its roots in cloud-based services with the continued growth in the use of SaaS and Kubernetes. These, he suggested, provide power and portability without entanglement. He sees Appian being the facilitator for businesses that wish to choose their own technology:
We'll let you have the products you choose across your enterprise and it's our job to work with them; it's not your job to make your products work with us. And secondly, your data should be wherever you decided to put your data, you don't need to move it into our format or into our database or into our cloud. You can leave it where you want. And just imagine if you didn't have to re-tool your enterprise to match Appian. You would be free of the leverage trap that big tech has set for you.
And there's going to be backlash. Companies are going to regret how much negotiating power they gave these tech giants and how trapped they are and how unable they are to find alternatives. They're going to want a little more control than that. I hope that we can signal to companies, to our users, that they can expect more than separate silos, and that they should expect more. The functionality that should be unified is today dis-unified, and they should expect it to come together.
Calkins’ view of what is key to making this happen is the provision of powerful workflow tools. This is where dis-unified teams come together, and where co-ordination, collaboration and coherence emerges:
You cannot do modern automation without great workflow, it is the single most important component of the automation future.”
He sees the need for this type of change becoming more important as developments such as edge computing gain traction and significantly increase both the power and complexity of such workflows. For a start the Appian approach can enable a dispersed data model, not so much in terms of moving computation itself to the edges, but in terms of the co-ordination of tasks and the ability to bring together different types of `workers’, both human and robotic:
“We happen to do that across an enterprise that is naturally divided and dispersed. But it is not our theoretical goal to divide or disperse or to advance an idea of how there could be a processing everywhere. We just deal with organisations the messy way they are.
Add an app or two
As well as building the tools for businesses to develop their own applications, Appian also dips its toes into the waters of developing applications in its own right. Two of these were announced at the conference.
One was a straight business application, pitched at the insurance market where the company is already a strong player. This is the Appian Connected Claims Solution, a suite of integrated modules that automate the claims lifecycle for policies covering property, casualty and life insurance and is aimed at businesses offering such insurances services for their staff. Typically, insurance companies have a large number of systems covering different aspects of these sectors and this application brings the management of them together, as there is often a requirement to process them simultaneously as part of a single wider claim.
The second is more topical, for it is designed to provide businesses with a digital health strategy to cover every employee. This provides tools that track employee health, so quick decisions can be made to preserve theirs, and others, safety. When a health incident occurs at an organisation the system first collects all pertinent data instantaneously, such as where that person has been, what facilities they visited, what people they have contacted in which rooms on what floors. If somebody shows symptoms it is then possible to ensure that all contacts do not come to work and stay home, Calkins says:
It turns out that most businesses are not using any digital health strategy technology more sophisticated than a spreadsheet. And I've got to say, I don't think that's responsible. I think that if you do your digital health strategy on a spreadsheet, then you're making a few mistakes. First, you don't have enough information. If there is an incident you don't have, you don't know enough about the contacts, contact tracing, and the places that they visited.
It is still far too early for anyone to claim they have found and implemented ‘the new normal’ but bits of it are starting to show through. The obvious one that is almost certain to be a mainstay from here on is that home working will be a major part – though ironically it seems likely that Appian will one company where to desire to get back into the office may well win out. But with home working can come a move to smaller, more distributed work groups which in turn could lead to smaller, more tailored applications that meet each group’s needs. The days of the pan-galactic application, where every division and department has its processes and requirements hand-tortured until they fit that applications’ modus operandi, may be numbered. And if Appian is as good as its word on the subject of openness and integration with third party applications, including direct competitors, then one of the prime arguments for staying in the silos of the major vendors may be gone, making building small, tailored solutions a great deal easier.