Workday moves towards a more composable platform strategy with Extend

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 1, 2022
Workday sees flexibility and integration as important selling points. At its Rising EMEA conference I found out more about its Extend initiative and a more composable platform strategy.

Zuzana Rozkosna & Charlotte Okosun, Hilti, at Rising EMEA 2022-11 - @philww
Zuzana Rozkosna & Charlotte Okosun, Hilti, at Rising EMEA (@philww)

As outlined on its earnings call this week, Workday sees flexibility and integration as a crucial part of its appeal to enterprise prospects and customers in an uncertain world. Workday Extend, which allows customers and partners to create their own applications and integrations on top of the core HCM, finance, spend and analytics platform, has stepped out into the limelight this year to play a key role in that proposition.

At Rising EMEA in Stockholm last month, I had the opportunity to ask more questions about Extend and drill into what it tells us about Workday's platform strategy. When co-CEO Chano Fernandez tells Wall Street analysts that change "is nearly impossible to navigate with legacy systems," the clear implication is that Workday offers a more modern technology path than traditional enterprise applications. But how does Workday's platform measure up against today's more composable alternatives?

For all that Workday started out by challenging the incumbents of the day with its own cloud-native, in-memory architecture, that heritage was a conventional 3-tier application stack, with application logic guarding access to a database, and a predefined user interface. But subsequent redesigns have swept away that original architecture, says Sayan Chakraborty, EVP Product & Technology:

What was essentially in 2006, a monolithic app vertically scaled application has become a completely horizontally scaled application at every layer ... No line of code in the original Workday is still there, the whole thing has been changed.

Aiming to find out more about Extend, I sat down in Stockholm with Kelly Emo, Senior Director of oCIO Technology Solution Marketing at Workday. What transpired from the conversation is that there's more to Extend than merely a custom app builder. The continued evolution of the underlying Workday platform creates the potential to add on more extensive integrations and workflows.

As my colleague Jon Reed outlined following his visit to the US edition of Workday Rising, Extend is now gaining traction with Workday customers and partners. Customers are finding three main types of use case, says Emo. One is to bring existing ad-hoc applications that are currently running on spreadsheets or some other make-do platform into the Workday environment — "helping IT organizations rein in ... 'barnacle' applications." (I like the imagery of these make-do add-ons as ugly invaders that clamp onto the infrastructure and slow things down.)

Another is the 'rapid response' use case, where a new application needs to be built within days to handle an urgent requirement. She cites Otis Elevator as an example, building an application for its employees in Ukraine to check in on their safety in just two days using Extend. The final category encompasses unique, one-off use cases that draw on the core capabilities of HCM or finance, such as the PGA Tour organization, which built an Extend application that connects the system that does its payouts for golfers with Workday Financials.

Hilti's document management app

Partners are more focused on building applications that will appeal to a cross-section of customers, typically packaged, industry-specific solutions that fall into the first of these three use cases. One example is a document management app developed by partner Kainos in collaboration with construction tools manufacturer Hilti. This app, which as Jon Reed mentioned in his story from Rising in the US is now validated and approved by Workday, is expected to be generally available to customers in the spring. In a session at Rising EMEA, we heard Hilti's side of the story. Due to go live any day now, the app has been developed to plug a hole left by the decommissioning of Hilti's SAP HR instance, but will also replace Sharepoint and even paper filing systems in some parts of the global business.

The app automatically creates draft documents required across the employee lifecycle, based on templates created by HR teams and using data pulled out of Workday. It has workflows designed to simplify document-based processes for the HR team, including integration with DocuSign for digital signing, and storage of documents in line with compliance requirements. Zuzana Rozkosna, Project Lead for the document management solution at Hilti, explains the rationale for choosing to build the app in Workday Extend:

We were looking at external solutions. But the problem with that is, it's an additional software that you have to integrate, you have to maintain all the integrations, achieve the data flows, often not real-time. It has the functionalities but with big pieces missing, and you don't have the user experience.

Then we learned about Workday Extend. So we started exploring what is Extend and found out, it's an actual match for what we need. Bring those two together, the Workday core and the functionalities that we have to have in our solution, and have it all in Workday.

This testimony gives us an insight into the strategic value of Extend to Workday. It's a vehicle for bringing more functionality into the Workday environment, cementing the platform as a foundation element in the customer's IT infrastructure. Other use cases at Hilti are likely to follow, as Charlotte Okosun, Head of the company's Project Management Office at Hilti, adds:

Workday Extend in general is really enabling us to look at how we can continue to plug those gaps that we don't have from the core Workday offering. This is just the start of our journey with Workday Extend. We're already looking, as an organization, what else that we can utilize it for. Ultimately, for us, this [application] is really something that is so imperative to our business in terms of managing our documents. Having this use case and having this experience now, it opens the door for us to look at how else we can continue to use it.

Opening up integrations

In many organizations, some of those other use cases will inevitably involve integrations to other applications and data sources. The evolution of the platform certainly seems to be opening up easier connectivity, so that Workday also becomes an integration hub for core business workflows. Chakraborty sees Workday's proven enterprise credentials as an asset in that scenario. He says:

The ability to rapidly integrate, whether that's acquired solutions or new solutions, but still providing that seamless experience, that high quality experience, a common object model, a common security model across all of that, and meeting that customer expectation that Workday products will work well together, is a critical part of the platform going forward.

This brings us back to the ongoing refactoring of the Workday platform to align more with what I have been calling a Tierless Architecture, so named because the old tiered application stacks are breaking down into APi-native services, accessed without having to go through a predetermined UI or application layer. One of the most visible signs of this trend is the shift to 'headless' access to enterprise functions via messaging apps such as Slack and Teams. This makes it possible to view data or perform actions directly from the messaging layer without having to actually open up the underlying enterprise application. Workday introduced support for Slack and Teams some time ago, and is now rolling out integration with Google Chrome, to support Workday notifications and interactions directly in the browser, even while using another web app.

Another sign of Workday moving to a more composable architecture is the introduction of its Graph API, based on GraphQL, which I highlighted in my earlier coverage of news from Workday Rising in the US. Emo comments:

That's getting a lot of interest from our developer community, supporting this idea of being able to develop applications where you're just getting the information, the datasets you need, without pulling all the data across — really helping developers create lean, efficient data integrations with Graph API.

Developers will be able to build Graph API integrations that can then be plugged into applications in the new App Builder low-code development tool, or accessed via Workday Orchestrate to build event-driven workflow automations. This expands the tole of the orchestration tool into more integration scenarios, as Emo explains:

Right now, it's mostly for business processes and orchestrated workflows, but we're going to be expanding it for more traditional forms of integration as well. We've had our Integration Cloud for a while, but that's more of a traditional, data integration, ESB-type approach.

Collaborative development

Another facet of modern application development is the emergence of so-called fusion teams, or what I prefer to call co-code — business experts and technologists working collaboratively, with the aid of tools that support no- and low-code development while still giving professional coders the ability to contribute components and set governance rails. Workday Extend fully supports this approach, as Emo explains:

People from the business that have a lot of expertise in Workday as a domain — [who] understand the data model and the business processes within Workday and what they're representing inside Workday — working with more IT developers that can go and build business logic using more traditional programming models, and then really allowing those two teams to work together.

App Builder is part of our Extend development environment. It's web-based, but it's a low-code model. It uses drag-and-drop ideas, so you can really construct what I call the scaffolding of an application. A business person can do that, because they understand what the worker object is related to and what the onboarding business process does, and then IT can come in and build the more complex logic behind.

That collaboration between IT experts and business teams will be particulary important when it comes to working with AI and machine learning, she adds.

As you start pulling in machine learning in your applications, the whole governance side of it becomes even more important as well, because you want to make sure that you're using good practices in how you develop apps that leverage machine learning — keep the human in the loop, keep them explainable. What are the datasets being used? How are the algorithms functioning?

I think we'll see even more of that model where ... IT teams need to stay heavily involved for the governance, while the business teams can have some of the agility to build out.

Customers who are early adopters of Extend are most likely to embrace this more composable, collaborative development style, while others, who have typically used the more traditional Workday Studio tool for integrations, will likely follow later on. Emo comments:

This is where I think we're going to need to be doing more education with a number of our customers on architectural models. It's not easy. You've got to really unpack what your Studio integrations are doing. We have customers that have built Studio integrations, and they want to build a more lightweight, more maybe event-driven model. They're going to spend some architecture planning time, definitely. The tools are there. But you've got to know what those integrations are doing and how you would want to move them to the newer model — or in some cases, maybe they don't fit that model.

New use cases that the Graph API will enable might include HCM applications that combine information from different sources, such as analyzing when different job roles take leave to inform decisions on leave policy; bringing together data from CRM systems with finance data to anayze cross-sell and upsell trends in retail; or ESG applications in Extend that access the results of external data analysis in Prism. Emo sums up:

This space is going to be fascinating as it develops, as ... more and more organizations lean into this idea that SaaS is truly a platform and not just a set of application functionality.

My take

Workday is taking some interesting steps here towards a more collaborative, composable platform architecture that positions the Extend initiative as more than just the ability to build applications to suit individual customers or specific industries. There's an element of positioning Workday as more of a core platform that can act as an integration hub for connecting different data sources and workflow automations across the enterprise. Composability purists may argue that it takes more than a sprinkling of GraphQL to create a truly composable architecture, but most of Workday's customer base is a long way from moving to a pureplay version of the model anyway. Having the ability to take some initial steps in that direction should in most cases be more than enough to satisfy their immediate needs for greater flexibility.

A grey colored placeholder image