IT organizations use application platforms to respond quickly to business needs by reusing powerful capabilities. But it doesn’t always turn out that way. Application platform portfolios often fall victim to “a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder”. This application platform entropy dissipates the resources of organizations across an ever-increasing set of on-premise and cloud-based platforms, including web portals, integration layers, content management systems, extensible applications such as ERP and CRM systems, and complete development and runtime environments for analytic or transactional solutions.
Application platform entropy has many causes that reinforce each other, leading to a downward spiral that saps the strength of IT organizations. The most fundamental cause is the natural tendency to optimize solutions to solve the problem at hand, without regard to technical debt. Enterprises often need to move quickly to solve problems, and the best already-developed solution to a particular problem may only run on a platform that is new to an organization, or a platform that the enterprise has already decided to contain or retire. Even when a preferred platform is targeted, the capacity of an organization to support it may be overwhelmed due to a lack of capacity, budget or expertise. Even when an organization has well-established and adequate platforms, IT or business leaders may champion new platforms, which seem to emerge continually, without clear plans to prudently establish them and migrate existing implementations. Technology sales people strive to sell as high in the organization as they possibly can, and often win the support of leaders that are not fully aware of existing platform investments or transition costs.
Incomplete migration to new platforms is both an effect and a cause of application platform entropy. Even when an organization commits to a new platform for all the right reasons, and undertakes a well-planned and well-funded program to fully adopt the platform within a well-defined scope, the adoption effort often meets with only partial success due to a lack of platform competency in planning or execution, or due to other risk inherent in complex projects with new technology. Organizations with overly ambitious adoption plans that outstrip the development of platform competency invite partial implementations and disappointed stakeholders seeking alternatives.
Missing, incomplete, or ambiguous enterprise governance also increases the likelihood of application platform entropy. Some enterprises lack clear and concise standards that specify the permitted and prohibited uses of application platforms. Sometimes, these standards are not updated and communicated frequently enough to retain relevance and credibility. Sometimes, standards are not enforced. Sometimes, as reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions, and new ventures take shape, critical discussions about how existing technology standards and governance processes apply to new or fundamentally changed organizations do not occur, or do not reach enforceable conclusions.
Even if overall enterprise technology governance is robust, poorly governed application platforms can also lead to entropy. Failed implementations and dissatisfied stakeholders are likely if classes of related and potentially competing platforms are not governed by business-IT partnerships that monitor business needs, balance horizontal platform investments with vertical application investments, drive continuous improvement, and oversee the retirement of obsolete platforms.
What can enterprises do to realize the potential of powerful application platforms over the long term? First, an enterprise-wide technology governance body must be established. This body must first understand and document the enterprise operating model, i.e. the degree of business process standardization and integration. Based on this model, which may vary substantially across different levels and branches of the enterprise, the governance body must establish supportive technology governance with clear authority and enforcement mechanisms. It must revisit and reinforce this governance whenever there is a significant change in the business. The governance body must work with enterprise architects to understand and document the operating model, assess the impact of business changes, develop business, data, application and technology architectures and roadmaps, and oversee their implementation.
Within the overall enterprise architecture, enterprises must identify key technology capabilities that require platform support, such as ERP, digital customer interaction, and enterprise content management, and set up governance bodies for each of them. These bodies must be empowered to manage the full lifecycles of their platform portfolios, from investigating new approaches to removing obsolete technologies from service. These bodies must consist of key business and IT stakeholders, and must work together to manage overlaps and gaps in the overall application platform portfolio. These governance bodies must work with enterprise architects to develop platform architectures and roadmaps, and oversee their implementation.
Besides establishing governance, enterprises must plan implementation and migration projects conservatively. Platforms are complex beasts designed to solve broad classes of problems across diverse enterprises. Even the best technologists require training followed immediately by on-the-job practice in order to develop platform competency. Outside consultants and trainers are typically required to build platform competency, but an internal core team must thoroughly understand each major platform and manage it for the benefit of the enterprise.
Due to the difficulty of integrating complex platform products within complex enterprises, initial platform implementation and migration projects will likely meet only some of their objectives. Therefore it is critical to establish a sufficient internal team dedicated to problem resolution, continuous improvement, development or migration of new solutions, and retirement of legacy platforms. Organizations that count on a fully successful initial implementation and migration followed by a rapid stream of application enhancements and new development often set themselves up for failure. They are often forced to build new functionality atop platforms that are not sufficiently robust, leading to production failures and disappointed stakeholders seeking alternatives.
To reap the benefits of application platforms, enterprises must understand their operating model, establish and refresh enterprise governance, establish platform governance and competency, develop enterprise and platform architectures, plan projects conservatively, and build strong support teams. Enterprise architects have a critical role to play in advocating and implementing all of these measures.
How does your organization manage its application platforms? What pitfalls have you encountered? Which practices help you maximize your returns on platform investments? Please post your comments.