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How to democratise innovation in today’s API revolution

Ian Fairclough Profile picture for user ifairclough November 18, 2019
Build blocks, don't block builds - innovation advice from Mulesoft's Ian Fairclough.


Today, market leadership is defined by speed of innovation. Companies that build the best services the fastest take the edge. This theme is set to become more prevalent, with IDC predicting that by 2025 nearly two-thirds of enterprises will be prolific software producers, with code deployed daily.

However, as the demand for innovation speeds ahead, IT is in danger of falling behind and failing to meet the needs of the business. To keep up with these demands, IT leaders need to empower a new generation of citizen integrators that can drive their own innovation.

Blockers to building

With 2019 rapidly drawing to a close, digital transformation seems to be the trend that organisations just can’t kick. MuleSoft’s 2019 Connectivity Benchmark Report found that despite 97% of organisations planning to undertake digital transformation initiatives, 64% were unable to deliver all projects last year. And with project volumes only expected to grow, IT is struggling to keep pace.

The pain points are numerous; from budgetary challenges, to poorly connected systems, to a lack of skills or experience within IT teams. It’s evident that the disparity between what is expected of IT and what IT can actually achieve is widening – creating an ever-growing delivery gap.

As the demand for innovation continues to outstrip the capacity of IT departments, organisations need to overhaul the processes by which they build and create digital services, and cast their nets wider to enable more of the workforce to get involved.

Building blocks

Instead of seeing innovation as a task for just IT teams, CIOs must decentralise IT and make it possible for any employee to integrate systems, unify data and deliver personalized customer experiences—without writing a single line of code. By empowering employees with the tools to drive digital transformation, CIOs can facilitate the creation of citizen innovators and integrators.

With IDC predicting that by 2023 60% of the Global 2000 will have a digital developer ecosystem with thousands of developers, it’s a logical step for companies to democratising innovation and expand the pool of innovators that can join the ecosystem.

Democratising innovation essentially requires digital capabilities and data to be unlocked so people can innovate on their own, and the best way to achieve this is through APIs. APIs expose data and capabilities in a consumable and reusable way, so they can be stitched together to create new products and services quickly. And if these APIs are treated as products, they will organically grow into an application network, where all applications, data sources and devices are connected together.

By exposing existing capabilities to internal and external developers via the application network, organisations can avoid having to start every digital project from scratch by allowing others to reuse what has already been created elsewhere. A thoughtful API strategy ultimately democratises innovation, allowing non-IT employees to build upon existing capabilities and innovate in their own way.

To be successful, this new approach requires a cultural shift within companies, where IT and wider business teams are encouraged to embrace reusability. Just as Rome was not built in a day, application networks too are the result of a slow build across the entire ecosystem. By harnessing reusable APIs, businesses can integrate digital capabilities to deliver innovation projects quickly. Not only this, but by democratising innovation, IT will also be free to work on higher-level strategic projects while saving time and resources.

Innovation in the wild

One example of a company putting the democratisation of innovation into practice is global aircraft manufacturer Airbus. The company built a set of APIs that allowed it to unlock and aggregate data from its systems, across cloud and on-premises, and make that accessible to the wider aviation industry through the open data platform Skywise. This empowered airline customers and industry partners to develop and deploy their own capabilities to make improvements to functions, including aircraft performance, fleet operational reliability and quality of maintenance.

If businesses are going to keep pace with the demand for innovation, it is vital that they reimagine their internal structures and rewrite the rules on who can build. IT can no longer be seen as a moated fortress that works within its four walls.

Instead, IT needs to lower its drawbridges to other areas of the business. By making innovation collaborative and adopting an IT-as-a-Service approach, organisations will be empowered to deliver more seamless, connected experiences for employees, customers and partners. Innovation has outgrown IT, and the organisations which are first to set it free to the wider business will be the first to experience the success this new approach offers.


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