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How can enterprises avoid “app overflow”?

Wed 1 May 2019

Firms are swimming in a sea of applications, bringing fresh challenges that need to be addressed 

For the digital enterprise making use of the best-in-breed applications is non-negotiable, and the number they are relying on is increasing. Workforces on average rely on 162 applications to stay productive, according to cloud identity and access management platform Okta’s recent “Businesses @ Work” report. This is a departure from the traditional enterprise approach of stack simplicity; purchasing one integrated system from a big vendor like Microsoft, Oracle or SAP.

To discuss the changing landscape, senior leaders from three of the most successful enterprise applications – communications platform Slack, cloud content management platform Box, and Okta itself – hosted a breakfast roundtable. They cautioned that while increased application volumes are improving enterprise productivity, they are also bringing fresh complexities.

Changing dynamics in the modern enterprise

Chris Baker, SVP and GM at Box, said the increase in applications is down to growing digital proficiency and shifting workforce expectations. “Employees don’t want email; they want Slack and other technologies,” he said.

In an increasingly competitive world, he said, companies must listen to their workforce or risk losing top talent. Thus with respect to application purchasing decisions, organisational structures in modern enterprises have turned on their head. CIOs have increasingly less direction over tech-stack investment; the workforce underneath dictates applications purchased. Jesper Frederiksen, EMEA VP and GM at Okta, said Okta itself migrated from WeChat to Slack at the behest of its tech engineers.

“It’s a very bottom-up approach compared to what it was five or ten years ago. Whether it’s sales, whether it’s engineering or marketing, they go out and pick the tool that they will feel will enable them to do their best work. That’s why we’ve seen this explosion of applications,” he said.

This shift in power is placing more responsibility on sales, marketing or development teams to demonstrate value from the applications they endorse. It is also changing tech companies’ sales pitches. Companies like Slack, Box or Okta don’t replicate the classical big vendor approach of pitching to CIOs or CEOs but instead directly target sales or engineering teams.

All the panel members agreed that encouraging autonomy was desirable from the point of view of productivity and that the days of buying a complete stack from SAP or Oracle were gone.

Frederiksen added that companies have to “accept that new applications are better than these platform stacks.” Slack was again used as an example: Baker said he “is on a mission” to eradicate email (i.e. Outlook) from Box’s workflow.

“With respect to application purchasing decisions, organisational structures in modern enterprises have turned on their head”

Workplace culture was flagged as a potential inhibitor to these productivity gains. Sanjay Nand, senior consultant at consultancy Capgemini, said the biggest blockers are not senior level staff, but the “middle layer” that are more comfortable with traditional systems. In order for the democratisation described above to succeed, departments must become more transparent and collaborate to fully embrace workflow changes.

Managing security

The panel admitted that an influx of applications comes with other downsides that must be addressed. First, increasing the volume of cloud-based applications increases a firm’s attack surface. Companies must therefore strike a balance between autonomy and security. Frederiksen said those who haven’t already done so must rethink their approach to IT security and embrace the zero-trust paradigm. Network-centric approaches to security (including firewalls and url filtering) are inadequate. Firms must become person-centric via thorough identity and access management (not only encompassing their workforce but wider stakeholders they interact with).

“There is no natural perimeter around your business anymore,” he said. “Know the identity, make sure that people are connected to you on devices you are comfortable with and make intelligent ongoing choices about whether this is safe and secure.”

Firms can either do this in-house or outsource. Frederiksen (unsurprisingly) emphasised the benefits of the latter:

“Get out of the business of building your own identity and access management system. Boards need to decide whether they can do it better than an organisation who have 1700 people walking up and doing this every morning. That’s the challenge we pose to CIOs,” he said.

Managing payments

Owning a vast collection of applications also complicates license payments. Do enterprises really want the inefficiencies of managing over a hundred bills a month as opposed to dealing with three bills from Oracle, SAP and Microsoft? While the panel acknowledged the problem, they pointed out we are still in the “early stages”, and trusted the market to come up with a solution.

For instance, Frederickson said companies like BT have introduced self-service portals where SMEs can buy and pay for multiple services and that consultancies like Capgemini, Accenture and Deloitte already assemble pre-packaged solutions that come with a unified monthly bill:

“Three or five years from now, I think you can see successful, almost managed service businesses being built around organisations like ours, where you take away that pain and provide one bill downstream,” he said.

Nand added that these new services have the added benefit of accelerating the growth of new companies and new ventures spun up by existing ones.


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