Workday Leverages the Power of its Cloud Platform for Application Innovation

The “Power of One” In a Hyper-Connected World

In a recent report, Leveraging the Power of a Platform For Enterprise Applications, Mint Jutras encouraged readers to seek out and leverage the power of a modern, technology-enabled development platform in order to bring agility, usability, extensibility and more innovation to the enterprise applications they use to run their businesses. Agility is an absolute must today as new, innovative products, new ways of selling and pricing products and services, and entirely new business models emerge seemingly overnight. Meanwhile consumer technolgy has raised expectations for how we interact with these solutions, and the pace of innovation must accelerate to match the pace of change. Here we explore how one solution provider, Workday, is responding to change today and the change ahead in today’s hyper-connected world.

The “Power of One” Shared

We live in disruptive times… or as Workday likes to say, “Shift happens.” Not only must the pace of innovation accelerate, but also that innovation must be easily consumed without adding disruption of its own. That means the application must be easily tailored (configured) without invasive code changes, and it must be extensible. Platforms play a very key role in delivering against these requirements.

Workday’s strength lies in what it calls the “power of one” – one code line, one security model, one mobile app, one data model, one user experience (UX), one version, and most pertinent to our exploration here… one platform. Indeed, one platform facilitates the rest. And therefore, taking a platform approach to development is not new for Workday. It has always developed its cloud-based business applications using a solid and modern platform. But up until recently Workday employees were the only developers allowed to use that platform.

However, last year it soft launched the Workday Cloud Platform, feeling it was time to open it up to third party developers and its own customers in order to further accelerate innovation. Quite simply, the Workday Cloud Platform enables customers and partners to build applications that run on and integrate with Workday. It provides all the tools needed to manage the application life cycle, complete with data modeling and a single Application Programming Interface (API) point of integration. Having worked with early adopters for some period of time, the platform is now ready for prime time.

Workday’s vision for the Platform is in line with how Mint Jutras defines “leverage.” The vision is stated in terms of three objectives:

  • To enable specific industries and geographies with last mile functionality beyond the core functions required by any business
  • To be the engagement layer for all employees in an enterprise
  • To expand and strengthen the Workday ecosystem

This vision aligns quite well with the kind of strong development platform we described in our prior report.

In that report we talked about platforms providing “a better way” to tailor, customize and extend solutions… better than waiting for long development cycles or invasive code changes. “Better” becomes “best” in combining cloud computing and a modern, next generation architecture that delivers the kind of “application services” that speed and simplify development.

While the cloud is certainly a factor, Mint Jutras contends that Software as a Service (SaaS) and associated Platforms as a Service (PaaS) have a bigger impact on innovation. Workday’s Cloud Platform (still in limited availability) indeed qualifies as a PaaS, and the Workday applications are true, multi-tenant SaaS solutions.

Enterprise applications delivered as software as a service (SaaS) have the potential to deliver more innovation through more frequent updates, while also reducing the cost and effort of upgrades. The cost and effort part is intuitive and universal – the solution provider does the heavy lifting when it comes time to upgrade. But not all cloud-based SaaS solutions provide more innovation, more frequently.

Some SaaS solution providers offer the option of running the same solution on-premises, in private clouds and/or as SaaS. While many today value this choice, there is a price to be paid for it. Solution providers that deliver on-premises solutions are forced to maintain multiple versions of the software. Instead, Workday leverages the power of one, maintaining a single line of code in a strong, safe and secure multi-tenant environment, and delivers significant new capabilities every six months. But this multi-tenancy (all companies use the same instance of the software) only increases the need for configurability and extensibility because no two companies operate identically.

Let’s explore how the three elements of Workday’s vision align with some of the most important elements of architecture.

Features and Functions

At the very core of innovation is the development of new features and functions in support of the business, either to provide core basics or some level of differentiation. When applications were developed as tightly integrated, monolithic structures, this not only meant developing new code, but also modifying existing code in order to “fit” the new features or functions into the overall application. But in our prior report we introduced the concept of component-based architectures. New components can be added as extensions, or used to replace existing components without having to invasively modify that monolithic structure. By taking a platform approach, modern architectures support loose coupling of these extensions by providing APIs (application programming interfaces) that negate the need for invasive customization.

As a refresher, we described microservices. For the reader with a technical background, microservices, also known as the microservice architecture, is defined (by Wikipedia) as an architectural style that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services. For those nontechnical readers, think of it as constructing a solution from a set of Lego building blocks.

Think about how you build a structure from Legos. Each Lego block is made of the same kind of material and is attached (connected) to the other Lego blocks the same way. In many ways they are interchangeable. But by choosing different colors and sizes, and connecting them with a different design, you can make a structure that is very unique. And once constructed, if you want to change it, decoupling some of the blocks and replacing them doesn’t destroy the parts that are not affected. There is far less disruption introduced than if you had constructed it with timber, a hammer and nails.

This is indeed how Workday envisions delivering a complete end-to-end solution (Figure 1), something their customers have been asking for. Customers have indicated a strong desire to consolidate within Workday.

Figure 1: A Consistent Platform for All Development

Source: Workday

Core functionality is delivered within Workday applications, but industry-specific, and regional requirements (localizations such as tax and regulatory compliance requirements) can be packaged as optional extensions. The platform ensures these extensions are seamlessly integrated with the core applications, but can be optionally selected and deployed. This prevents having to add unwanted complexity to the core applications.

While configuration is preferred over customization that involves the development of code, custom components or applications can be justified when they bring customers a level of differentiation in their markets. These are simply extensions that are not shared across a segment or the larger installed base of Workday customers. Independent Software Vendor (ISV) applications are also a form of extension (also easily and seamlessly integrated with Workday applications) but are made commercially available. These will either fill a gap in the Workday solution or address industry-specific requirements, much like those extensions that Workday will provide.

An Engagement Layer for the User Experience

We used to talk about the end user experience solely in terms of intuitive and easy navigation and perhaps general look and feel. But Workday’s efforts to improve the user experience stretch well beyond the look and feel, encompassing many different facets and different roles within any company that uses Workday. It has invested heavily in developing a user experience (UX) layer that encourages engagement and tailoring (configuring without code) different types of experiences. This investment has zeroed in on three principles of design: simple, clever and fast.

Individual users can configure their own “home pages,” which include most frequently used applications and functions within those applications. These might be specific inquiries or transactions in Workday. Users can easily create new “cards,” which might also bring external data into Workday. Think of a card as a new box or tile on the screen.

Workday users can also create “Natural Workspaces,” which allows them to access Workday functions right from the workspace or tool they are already in (Slack, email, etc.) without having to jump from app to app. These Natural Workspaces can also include workplace hubs supported by collaboration tools like Slack, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams. Indeed, Workday and Slack have recently formed a partnership to deliver a productized integration that will be delivered in 2018 and beyond (in phases).

For many, those frequently used tools include spreadsheets. Workday understands the love-hate relationship most of us have with spreadsheets. We can’t seem to live without them despite the obvious problems they create. Once extracted from the system of record, the data in a spreadsheet takes on a life of its own; it can’t be governed, controlled or audited. And mistakes are incredibly easy to make. So Workday provides a viable alternative: Workday Worksheets is a cloud-based enterprise spreadsheet platform. First introduced in its Release 27 (September 2016), along with another important element of business management – planning, budgeting and forecasting, they now power three different Workday applications, and have customers live across multiple industries.

Workday Worksheets look and feel just like a spreadsheet, but you get this level of familiarity and functionality without ever leaving Workday’s secure enterprise environment. You can create models and scenarios, applying application rules and logic, using over 500 different standard functions (like SUMF, VLOOKUP and CONCATENATE), while leveraging live transactional data. The technology behind Workday Worksheets came from its acquisition of Gridcraft.

Workday has also introduced a new concept called Livepages, which help you create a narrative about your data, incorporating live data and charts, and supporting secure collaboration. Workday Assistant, a conversational user experience (think Siri, Alexa, Cortana for the enterprise) also supports collaboration with real-time conversations. But instead of having to follow up through the application later, users can take immediate action from and during those conversations, retrieving information and performing tasks.

While these different elements of the Workday UX target the business user and don’t require special technical skills, Workday also supports a new kind of persona: the “citizen developer.” According to Workday,

“A citizen developer is a technically skilled person who builds new business applications using development and runtime environments sanctioned by their corporate IT team, which in turn allow [the] company to more quickly and efficiently solve business problems. This persona is filled by employees within our customer, partner, and developer organizations worldwide. While we have surfaced capabilities since the beginning for citizen developers to configure their Workday deployment, the Workday Cloud Platform provides a complete toolset for the citizen developer to create their own Workday application experiences.”

To address the needs of the citizen developer, Workday has announced its new Workday Canvas Design System, which provides all of the resources needed (including standards and guidelines) to design and create new experiences that look and feel like Workday. As more customers start to take advantage of this design system, we expect to see the Workday community of developers grow, which brings us to the last of the three goals for the Platform.

Expanding and Strengthening the Ecosystem

As we noted in our previous report, the better the development platform, the more likely it will attract more developers. The more developers attracted to the platform, the more applications get developed, which ultimately can be shared. Features, functions and extensions have the potential to start to grow, if not exponentially, at least much faster than the typical linear sequence of development.

There are currently about 300 developers in the community of the Workday Cloud Platform, but remember, the platform has only been recently opened up. We expect this community to grow very quickly.

One More Thing – Intelligence

While analytics and intelligence are not necessarily stated goals of the Workday Cloud Platform, that doesn’t mean Workday isn’t addressing what Mint Jutras sees as an important element of any platform. In fact last October we recognized Workday as getting smarter and smarter.

In many ways, intelligence is a new currency in the global, digital economy (the hyper-connected world). While many solution providers talk about intelligent applications, they often deliver the minimum you should expect today, which is new ways of interacting with the solution and analytics that help you derive more and better insights from the data. Workday has gone beyond this, through acquisition and its own development efforts, aggressively taking steps towards real intelligence. Workday Prism Analytics, Benchmarking and Data as a Service (DaaS), machine learning, and natural language processing combine to make Workday smarter and smarter. By blending these capabilities with the Workday Cloud Platform, Workday is able to provide powerful insights and intelligence, not through separate bolt-on tools, but embedded in a single solution.

Summary and Key Takeaways

For many years Workday resisted the urging of pundits and industry observers to become a “platform” company, characterizing itself instead as an “application company.” Its strength has always been in what it calls the “power of one” – one code line, one security model, one mobile app, one data model, one user experience (UX), one platform, and one version. The introduction of the Workday Cloud Platform doesn’t change this; it only serves to strengthen it. The goal is not to become a platform or technology company, but instead to better leverage technology (through a platform approach) to foster and promote application innovation by (also) allowing others to innovate and extend the solution.

We are just beginning to see the rewards of this decision come to fruition, but Mint Jutras fully expects as the Workday Cloud Platform gains traction those rewards will grow and multiply quickly.

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