Back to the future – the reinvention of an 80’s trend in a digital era

Steve Vallis, Business Systems Consultant, KnowledgeKube

The rise of trends such as cloud, big data, mobile and social media are continuing to impact how we do business – as we look to integrate them into our day-to-day processes. But to continue this growth in more efficient and productive ways of working, organisations are reaching for emerging digital solutions.

In particular, those seeking to transform business processes have an appetite to create advanced applications – and quickly. This need for speed has resulted in the arrival of Agile computer programming and ‘low-code’ development platforms.

This drive to develop software at speed is not new, however. It actually has its roots in a time when there was no World Wide Web and little mobile phone coverage – the 80’s. This early software engineering revolution was based around rapid application development, or RAD.

The ‘waterfall’ software development model - called so because progress steadily cascades down through various phases of design, construction and testing - requires rigorous specification at the start of a project. RAD methodology on the other hand favoured a process of rapid prototyping and adjustments in reaction to knowledge gained as the project progressed. True to its name, rapid application development focused on an iterative and flexible process that allowed the project to evolve at greater speed. 

Indeed, modern Agile software development is similar to RAD, in that it also emphasises a flexible approach that can respond to new project requirements, and with more and more applications being required to drive business and the digital economy forward, this need for rapid prototyping is seeing a resurgence, but in a slightly different and more inclusive guise.

The latest low-code, and no-code, application development platforms are now taking this process to the next level. By replacing hand coding with configuration of features, they are allowing both business and IT teams to create and manage applications quicker than traditional methods.

Application development

These platforms are empowering those with and without any programming skills, to build web and mobile apps to automate business processes and drive transformation. Cloud-based deployments also mean that non-technical people can initiate projects of scale quickly - and free up the internal IT department to focus on more pressing projects.

The use of development platforms also reduces risk by allowing organisations to quickly prototype, test and improve applications early on. Organisations can then anticipate and avoid some of the stumbling blocks that have blighted software development in the past, leading to project overruns and increased costs. These issues have resulted in a number of high profile public sector projects being axed in the past.

For the public sector, fear of failure and perceived risk of digital initiatives is hampering innovation and the realisation of digital rewards. Civil servants with ideas about how to improve, connect and streamline processes are often perceived as mavericks who are rocking the boat. They are rarely given the freedom to put these ideas into practice due to that fear of failure. However, these emerging platforms are enabling users to experiment without the same risks of traditional methods.

Overcoming obstacles

Research carried out on behalf of no-code application development platform KnowledgeKube, has found that senior central and local government IT executives believe there is huge scope for improvement in public sector processes - some 96% of those surveyed claimed that more than a quarter of their processes were inefficient.

Yet the study revealed that there are several barriers blocking digital innovation in the public sector. These include a lack of resources (77%), high costs (74%), long timeframes (85%) and unacceptable risk (89%).

Application development platforms, however, are removing traditional obstacles and allowing digital innovation. CIOs and business leaders are now looking at these disruptive platform-based technologies as a way to challenge the norm of application development and deployment.

The growth in popularity of these platforms was recently highlighted by industry analyst Forrester. It claimed that faster delivery of applications is the primary benefit of ‘low-code’ platforms, adding that firms can also ‘respond more quickly to customer feedback after initial software releases’.

Responding quickly

The Forrester report said: “Hand-coding is too slow to develop and deliver many of the applications that companies use to win, serve and retain customers. Some firms are turning to new, low-code application platforms that accelerate app delivery by dramatically reducing the amount of hand-coding required.”

Forrester also claims that many development teams are now questioning the role Java, .NET, and other coding platforms should play in their customer-facing systems. It added that some enterprises may currently cope by outsourcing the challenge, and others may look to packaged applications or specialised middleware, but it claims none of these alternatives address the problem head-on.

The analyst maintains that the dominant requirement for any software development is that it serves the need of the organisation. Business leaders trying to move rapidly on new ideas to boost revenue and improve competitiveness ‘often get bogged down by rigid and siloed development approaches’, according to Forrester. It added: “Low-code platforms allow business leaders to experiment with new product and service ideas by merging requirements, design, development and deployment into a single platform.”

It is now clear that when it comes to embracing the transformation demands of modern business, organisations need to act quickly. They need to revisit those RAD principles of the 1980s and be disruptive and innovative in meeting the needs of the business. The emerging category of low-code and no-code application development is perhaps the next evolution in aiding this business transformation story.

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