31/03/2015

By Mark Armstrong, Vice President and Managing Director EMEA at Progress Software, a NASDAQ listed rapid app development company


A recent survey of senior IT leaders, conducted by Samsung, confirmed 90% of companies are hanging their hats on internal applications to improve access to business critical data that will help inform key decisions or simply speed up business practices. From simple, bespoke corporate productivity applications that compile data from siloed spreadsheets so that it’s easier to analyse, to more complex apps for data analysis, internal apps of all sorts will become prevalent in the next five years.

The emphasis on bespoke internal applications will create a step-change in the way apps are developed. As businesses move away from packaged applications to tailored apps for unique departmental requirements, CIOs will need to rethink how to strategically plan, deliver, manage and control this new element of the application portfolio and its architecture.

An opportunity exists for the CIO to marry the right type of ‘citizen developer’ within their organisation with a centralised technology platform, effectively empowering the business to support the IT team in building quality internal apps, fast and without risk.

Internal applications for competitive advantage

There are two main arguments for increasing investment in the development of internal applications; employee productivity and creating new products or services using existing application data or the collection of new data.

Vertu, the UK’s sixth largest motor retailer, provides a great example of employee productivity. It uses a content management system to power an application that supports the entire sales process from the moment the customer enters a dealership through to when they take delivery of their new car. The application enables the sales team on the showroom floor to identify whether a customer has visited the dealership before or purchased a car previously from them, enabling them to personalise and tailor the discussions and products based on the history and needs of that specific customer. They can then check stock availability, configure a vehicle, construct the deal and contract, and track the order.

GMT, a provider of specialised ERP solutions to the waste management industry, capitalised on real time data gathered from sensors to create a new product and generate new income. It uses an integrated development environment to develop and manage an enterprise app that allows it to tap into the potential of the Internet of Things (IoT) for the first time. GMT does this through analysing thousands of real-time data sets from multiple sensors and information sources from GPS, smart devices and RFID tags. These provide thousands of real-time data streams on truck location, traffic congestion and bin volumes which is fed through the app and integrated with route and logistics information to help them optimise truck routes and bin collection times. This strips inefficiency from the waste management process, cut costs, saves time and increases productivity. For example, one of GMT’s customers, that collects household waste in 20 Dutch municipalities, has experienced a 23% cost savings as a result of using the application.

Tackling the need for speed and the developer skills shortage

The need to develop internal apps quickly to meet demand and stay ahead of the curve is paramount in today’s competitive market place. Additionally, developers may be called on to satisfy the need to modernise existing applications by turning them into mobile apps that integrate with core mission critical apps. Yet, traditional methods of development can be both timely and costly, plus the appetite for apps can be rapidly influenced by a range of market forces, including competitor apps and new platform and device releases. This can often mean that by the time an app is ready for publication, the business need or industry landscape may have changed. The answer is a blended approach to application development that includes a mix of rapid and more traditional methods. This will ensure that development teams keep up with ever changing demand and requirements.

The greater challenge lies in managing the speedy delivery of internal apps, while development teams juggle a tonne of other app priorities in relation to their organisations’ core IT systems. These include regular modernisation updates plus the urgent demand for mobile and cloud integration. Pressure on developer time and resource is only likely to worsen. The European App Economy Report has revealed that despite a European population of 2.9 million developers in 2014, app demand already outstrips supply with every self-respecting CIO or brand manager commissioning their own apps. It concludes there will be far too few mobile app developers to seize upon the enterprise development opportunities provided by both iOS and Android in the future.

The right type of citizen developer

Many high-performing businesses are seizing on the ‘Citizen Developer’ trend to spur innovation at the front end and effectively widen the development team resource pool. Coined by Gartner, the term relates to users who create new business apps for consumption by others using development and runtime environments, but who do not have traditional developer training or in-depth knowledge of coding. Today, end users can build departmental, enterprise and even public applications using shared services, rapid application development tools, cloud computing services or platforms as a service (PaaS).

Smart organisations are empowering their business analysts to fulfil this role. Responsible for analysing an organisation or business domain, documenting its business processes or systems and assessing the business model and its integration with technology, simple Rapid Application Development (RAD) is a logical extension of the business analyst’s job.

Using the RAD tools, business analysts have the ability to build quick productivity-based apps that solve business problems, where typically 80% of the code is developed through drag and drop options negating the need for in-depth development skills. Point-and-click wizards walk business users through the definition of the application's data model, objects, workflows and more. The right RAD tools also feature templates that enable users to customise their apps by using standard APIs and JavaScript to tailor to each unique requirement.

To achieve rapid application development at scale, the important thing is to ensure business users and developers alike work from one centralised application development platform – one that is ease to use, easy to deploy and accessible anytime, anywhere. This ensures the CIO office retains control of all development projects and that the core development team can manage the data and back-end integration needed to put newly created apps into production.

With a technology platform sanctioned by corporate IT, the CIO is able to empower the business to deliver internal apps without risk. In doing so, the business will be better equipped to use its resource, including citizen developers, to meet changing market and business requirements for apps.