Can an application change a life? The answer is a resounding yes and both the number and visibility of examples are increasing all around us: navigation systems, GPS tracking, social media, fit bits and health monitoring. Applications have moved from simply being back-office tools to becoming essential in our daily lives.
This same transformation is also playing out in the corporate world as web-based applications deliver real-time information to customers, and provide a slew of interaction tools such as live chat and the ability to transact online. These functionalities aim to deliver customer value by simplifying day-to-day interactions - the digital expression of customer service.
The scale of change
The scale of this change is immense and far-reaching. To give a simple illustration, cast your mind back to June 28 2007. On that day you almost certainly had access to a PC at work, at home, or both, and you typically ran a few applications that were relevant to you, such as a document or presentation suite or web-based service.
That all changed the next day with the launch of the iPhone, which not only gave consumers three ‘revolutionary’ devices - a media player, a phone and an internet connector - in one, to quote the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, but also a platform on which application distribution was made infinitely simpler and more convenient.
While Apple was only one of several platforms for distributing applications (and was neither the first nor the largest), it perfectly illustrates the change in accessibility of applications. In 2012, a mere five years since the iPhone launch, 30 billion applications had been downloaded from Apple’s App Store platform alone, from a catalog of 650,000 available applications.
Today, the App Store has 1.4 million applications, with over 100 billion copies of applications downloaded, and counting. So mobile, real-time, ‘always-on’ applications that automate everyday activities are now mainstream. What does all of this mean for IT organisations and the people who create applications?
The first and most obvious change is that the war for talent has become much more intense. In the US alone, 1 million software developers are currently employed and this number is growing at 20 per cent per year. Gartner studies show that by the end of 2017, the demand for mobile app development services will grow five times faster than IT organisations’ capacity to deliver them. This will only drive the talent war to the next level.
Add to this the fact that the Gen X and Y workforce - the millennials, so to speak - are digital natives and adapt most quickly to today’s technology. As a result of the plethora of options in the IT job market, they have a more selective attitude towards the kind of work that they are willing to do.
In this kind of environment, how do you attract people to join - and most importantly, stay in - your organisation? People have always looked for an organisation with a clear career path, attractive remuneration, solid HR policies, and a strong brand and reputation. All of this still matters, but these are often seen as table stakes.
Assuming all this is in place, what makes people stay in an organisation has changed.
New war for talent
Ten years ago, IT professionals sought technology skills, such as SAP or Java, as the differentiator in selecting where to work. Today, with applications reaching people on a massive scale, and having the ability to change day-to-day life, the new differentiators are both the purpose of the organisation and, within that, the scope of applications to have an impact on people’s lives.
Between working for an IT firm that aims to ‘manufacture the best value PCs’ or one that aims to ‘democratise the opportunity of technology’, or between a logistics company that ‘delivers cargo on the world’s largest network’ or one that ‘enables global commerce’, people would choose the company whose aspirations they feel are laudable or add value, and they will seek to use the power of technology to drive these further.
Digitisation is making online the new interaction point for customers, the face of business, and it is natural that IT professionals would want to work on the biggest, most game-changing opportunities. The question they ask is, ‘Am I working for something good?’
In turn, IT organisations also need to change. There is little point fighting a talent war to attract key individuals only to lose them due to the organisation’s inability to change its way of working. Much debate has taken place around millennials and the kind of workplace they need.
Simply, these potential hires have grown up online and are used to digitised conversations on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. The same ability - having online access to data, dexterity with collaboration tools, and the ability to seamlessly interact with teams across locations and time zones without feeling handicapped - needs to be present within organisations.
Focus on function - and form
Returning to the point of digital front-ends becoming the face of business, IT will need to focus on user interface and user experience. Look at Google search versus Yahoo, or worse, compare them both with your company’s internal ERP system.
Design has long been the preserve of marketing and product companies. As applications become as common place in people’s lives as physical products, it is only logical that design becomes as important to application development as it is to product development.
Yet how many IT departments have deep skills around digital design? To see how this phenomenon is playing out, look at the number of digital design boutiques out there (e.g. Frog) that are filling the void. This skill needs to be taken internally and scaled to match application development.
The power of an autocratic start-up
Finally, start-up IT companies are capitalising on the technology revolution and driving more agile development in the industry. They are not hampered by lengthy and long-established processes or complex methodologies, and use this advantage to bring their products to the market faster, and deliver services that fill gaps in business processes, or outstrip traditional companies in terms of ease of doing business with its customers.
Start-ups are the star players in the disruption game. More established IT organisations that want to play the disruption game therefore need to examine how they develop, and consider alternative development modes.
Gartner cites bimodal IT development as a competitive operating model, where IT teams have the capability to both drive traditional and sequential development (mode 1) and also develop with agility and speed (mode 2). Bi-modal IT development is essential for IT to play at the same speed as industry disruptors.
Faster time to market is not the only thing that hangs in the balance here; a company’s ability to recruit and retain key talent is also in play, as millennials are naturally more attracted to this pace of work where they continually face new challenges in short intervals.
What it takes: playing to win
Speed of change is the new measure of success in today’s industry: software distribution needs to be immediate, and IT is now tasked to develop at the speed of consumers’ changing needs. Further, beauty also matters: consumers are more discerning now, and user design and experience is prized as much as the ability to deliver a product quickly. It is a vastly different environment that we now live in, and in which IT needs to play.
An IT organisation needs to keep in mind that success is dictated by its ability to run with change and to keep considering alternate models of development, from formal methodologies to exploring ‘hackathons’ or collaborative development.
Lastly, IT organisations must turn a critical eye on their own bench and know when and how to bring in people with the required skills. The new skills needed in IT professionals will be increasingly harder to come by, with key talent moving with the most interesting work. Organisations who will succeed in the fight for talent are those who know how to tell a compelling story on ‘why us’ - its purpose and ability to change the world.