“The pandemic taught us that change is real. It taught us that sometimes a business has to change in order to survive. Sometimes the customers demand change. Sometimes not just revenue, but human health depends on being able to change fast enough. And if you can’t change, you are going to let your customers down. You’ll let your employees down”.
These are the reflections of Matt Calkins, co-founder and CEO of Appian, a low-code automation platform that has for almost 20 years helped companies undergo digital transformations. Calkins believes that while many companies have been talking about digital transformation for a decade, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that talk is not enough; using technology to create agility in an organisation is now a business imperative.
He admits that his industry is responsible for much of the confusion around terms like digital transformation, visual transformation, hyper automation, low-code, and digital automation. “Those terms basically mean the same thing,” he explains. “They refer to using technology to allow a business to change faster because the world is changing faster, and the business has to keep up.”
Low-code gives you the fastest possible way to build and run a new application. It allows a business to specify a new pattern of behaviour by drawing a flow chart instead of writing lines of code.
“When you make a new application, the thing that slows you down the most is you’ve got to write the code, debug it, test it, and change it,” he explains. “Low-code allows companies to create processes by dragging and dropping, by drawing a picture, a logical flow chart. And this is much more intuitive and mirrors the way humans think about processes and procedures and applications. It’s a very human way to communicate.”
Because low-code is highly flexible and allows you to build and modify unique software for a unique situation, companies using it responded quickly when the pandemic hit.
“They were able to change their processes and the way they work with their customers. They were able to coordinate their employees better and deal with the dispersion of people and assets,” Calkins says.
The pandemic made coordination at a distance across separation a vital skill. Companies had to rally their teams and resources, create new workflows, and delegate decision making to the right person. Businesses that had already embarked on a digital transformation journey were better placed to do this than those that hadn’t.
“Big businesses are very slow to move sometimes,” Calkins says. “A small business sometimes doesn’t even need a procedure. They can just delegate it to a person. But a big organisation that needs to do something a hundred thousand times can’t delegate that to a person. They absolutely need a system. The bigger an organisation gets, the more scale it requires. And the more scale, the more you must systematize. And so, your agility, your ability to change as a big organisation is absolutely a function of software. Software has locked us into patterns because it’s a formula and hard to alter.”
So, are there any barriers for companies considering using low-code? “In the last few years, they have become exceptionally low,” he explains. “It’s now much, much easier to start a new project in low-code than it ever has been. At this point, products are free to use on the internet. Training is probably free. Thousands of people have certifications around the world. The total cost of ownership has come down, and it’s now very affordable. For these reasons, Forrester says that 75 per cent of organisations will be using low code by the end of 2021.”
Calkins says that because low-code empowers people to communicate with computers in a very human way, it delights them.
“It empowers two [groups of] people specifically. It empowers developers because studies show they can develop 10 to 20 times as much on a low-code platform than if they weren’t using one. It also empowers users because it allows them to participate as members of a dispersed team with great cohesion. It allows them to be connected to key data at the moment of decision, which they wouldn’t otherwise have been. It’s also super empowering as a user because we’re coordinating the assets across the dispersed enterprise so that you can make the decisions at the moment you need to make them.”
How does the Appian platform operate?
“We see our industry is comprised of three core functions. The first one is to discover your processes: to learn what’s actually going on inside your business, so you can figure out what you want to build software around. The second part is to design a new process, and the third is to automate that process to execute it. You have to do the work by delegating it to people, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, or even business rules.
“Our platform allows you to discover, design and automate your new process. And so that’s what digital transformation or, we like to say, low-code is all about. And by bringing these three things together, we’ve also made this industry far more accessible than it was recently.”
Recent research conducted by Appian, in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit, reveals that 89 per cent of Australian executives believe their organisation encountered operational difficulties in addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic, and 41 per cent described them as significant.
Calkins says that the study focused on the obligations of the modern CIO and the expectations on them. It revealed that 83 per cent of respondents said that their current applications weren’t good enough. They needed them to be more agile, scalable, and flexible to deal with future challenges. But IT departments are also experiencing a serious backlog, so they need to clear the backlog and create better applications.
“The survey says there’s a lot of pressure on the CIO, but I also say there’s a spotlight, there’s an opportunity, and there is respect for the IT function like there’s never been.”
Calkins predicts that our world will continue to change at high speed. And businesses will have to respond by meeting the needs of all their constituencies: customers, regulators, employees, and even the new boss whose plan disrupts existing patterns. He says the next challenge businesses will face is adopting a hybrid work model.
“It’s going to be different,” he says. We’re going to have customers demanding different services from different places, through different media, and workers working from different places in different modes. We’re entering a new world.
“Businesses are always looking for an edge, and once they find one, they stick with it. They’re going to use agility as their differentiator. So, if you thought it was scary a few years ago to be a slow business, it’s going to be scarier next year because now we’ve emboldened a set of competitors who are all gaining on you because they are fast. And so, everybody’s got to raise their game.”