By Mark Field, QuickBase
"We've got an app for that." Once a memorable advertising catch-phrase, this is now an IT worker's dream and -- potentially -- a chief digital officer's worst nightmare.
As businesses undergo digital transformation, more employees are turning to technology to get work done, requesting business apps by the dozens. IDC predicts that by 2018, global revenue for the SaaS applications market will be worth $50.8 billion, constituting a 27.8 percent share of the global market for enterprise applications, up from $22.8 billion and 16.6 percent respectively in 2013. IDC notes that "wherever new enterprise application software is required, the expectation is that SaaS applications are preferred."
While these apps drive significant value in terms of employee productivity and operational efficiency, they also create new challenges regarding the organization's overall data strategy. The days of one central data warehouse are a thing of the past, as organizations now also have to deal with pockets of data locked up in SaaS applications. As a result, the role of IT is shifting from the owner of all data to the connector, securer and advisor for business unit-owned data.
Here are a few key considerations to control the SaaS app chaos and get a handle on your ever-expanding data ecosystem.
Bring All the Data Together
Data is the single most important asset a business owns. Unfortunately, it's also one of the hardest to obtain. When data resides in application islands, it's not only difficult to access, but impossible to leverage with critical business processes, applications or business intelligence systems.
To drive the most value for the business, CDOs (chief digital officers) must help integrate application islands so they can not only talk to one another, but share data as appropriate and be updated regularly. Application integration enables workflow automation across standalone applications to improve operational efficiency and agility.
The value of integration is truly transformative. For example, I recently spoke with a customer who works in a services-based industry and struggled to match expenses to specific client projects. The expense tracking system and project management app were locked into disparate solutions and couldn't share information. This resulted in a lot of manual processes and time-consuming calculations.
With low code integrations, business users were able to tie together the two systems, all without writing a line of code. The customer described it as the "holy grail" of accurate, automatic reporting for profit and loss percentages on every project.
Engage Resources Outside of IT
Data integration enables businesses to access timely and accurate data to drive decisions and processes while saving time previously spent on manual work. The value is undeniable, but the challenges involved are vast.
Faced with a mounting backlog of requests to use information across app islands, IT is increasingly focused on complex integrations requiring more resources to design, implement and maintain, thereby increasing costs. This, combined with the high price of programming talent and IT skills shortage, exacerbates the growing IT backlog problem and draws out the perception that IT can't keep up with the demands of its business stakeholders.
Low-code integrations can offer a solution by empowering non-coder citizen developers, IT developers and system integration partners to rapidly build IT-sanctioned agile business ecosystems to drive decisions and processes in the data-driven digital business. So called "citizen integrators" can focus on less complex integrations without writing a line of code, freeing up more skilled IT staff to focus on business-critical integrations that require more customization.
One great example of a citizen integration would be for a line-of-business user to connect to a common SaaS application like Salesforce and connect it to the CRM data with expenses. The user can easily connect the apps with a point-and-click interface, and information is instantly shared.
Keep Data Secure
Once data is unlocked from application islands and shared via an integrated application ecosystem, the next step is to make sure it gets into the right hands -- and only the right ones. You want to ensure users are always looking and making decisions on the right data, the same data, and only the data they are authorized to see. This is where the strategic role of the CDO becomes critical.
When it comes to data security, there is no one-size-fits all solution. Every application and data source requires a unique approach based on three key considerations: the sensitivity of the data, the mission criticality of the app and the pervasiveness of the app across the organization.
For example, a vacation tracker app may be accessible by all within the organization, but the data is not sensitive, nor is the information used to run the business. Meanwhile, a sales performance app may have a far reach within the organization, but different individuals and groups need to have different access levels to the data, because the data is sensitive and business-critical.
Once the level of governance is determined, it's then up to the CDO to either put in the permissions and controls, or allow business users to set these up on their own via low-code development platforms. While the CDO is typically the most appropriate stakeholder for mission-critical controls, often the business users know their own groups and work streams better and may be more suited to set up user-specific permissions based on roles, teams and internal processes.
Bottom Line: Everyone Owns the Data
Business apps are changing the rules of IT. Data is no longer confined within the wall of central IT and is instead proliferating across the organization. As a result new stakeholders are entering the equation, and they are now being tasked with keeping data secure, integrating it with other sources and upholding its integrity. The IT leaders who embrace the trend of both IT and business user data control, rather than stifling it, will get more value out of their data and deliver the best overall experience to their constituents.
The key is not only low-code tools to enable those with limited technical experiences, it's also to drive a partnership within the business so they can ensure full transparency and collaboration between the parties.
Mark Field is Product Management leader at QuickBase.