The idea that you 'build from the bottom up' is one of those basic, accepted principles of living. Everything has to start with a solid foundation – a building, a relationship, a story, a team – you name it it's 'built from the bottom up'. Technology is no exception. If the fundamental infrastructure isn't sound then the rest of it is probably pretty precarious. We have lots of evidence to back this up. Look at what has happened to the big banks in the last few years. Numerous very expensive outages caused by the fact that fundamentally the technology the IT infrastructure the whole thing is built on has a severe case of the tech equivalent of subsidence.
But I am not here to teach anyone to suck eggs. Telling a CIO about the importance of a solid infrastructure is likely to get me shown the door pretty quickly. No, what I am interested in is a growing 'tech movement' that is turning this concept on its head.
The issue with the 'building from the bottom up' approach is that, in building terms, the higher the building is and the more complicated the design the more expensive, impractical and time consuming implementing any changes is going to be. This is exactly the challenge being faced by organisations who are now trying to re-engineer themselves to be more closely aligned with customer demands. A traditional approach would require a change programme that starts right at the bottom of the technology stack and works upwards, with the customer interface and interaction often the last element in the programme. The problem with that is not only the cost, complexity and slow pace but the fact that by the time you get to the experience interaction element the customers have moved on again and you have to start the process all over again.
But what would happen if instead of starting at the bottom of the stack you could start at the top and work your way down? What would happen if the user interface and experience was the first thing you changed? Let's imagine you are a high street retailer. You have an existing IT infrastructure built up over many years, which is now struggling to handle the share volume of traffic, transactions and data being pushed through it. You are also trying to handle a multitude of different digital access points – desktop, kiosk, mobile, tablet. Your customer experience, especially on mobile devices, is suffering; the rate of abandonment is high because the systems are too slow, too clunky (because actually they are just reformatted versions of the desktop interface).
The problems are caused by the integrated nature of your IT infrastructure and the reliance on the desktop browser, the solution lies in uncoupling it. 'Integration' has been a buzzword for a long time in IT. Organisations have been encouraged to spend huge amounts of money integrating everything from top to bottom in the belief that it will make everything faster, more effective and more connected. Now however the front end is evolving far faster than the back end is able to and the fact that the two are integrated is actually a barrier to progress.
Customers are driving this evolution by using different devices to access your business. The issue of improving customer experience is one that has to be solved by changing your approach rather than just changing the technology. The approach that is required is one that starts with realising that there will be more devices from watches to wearables in the future and that you have to adapt the front end interface in real time to create the best experience for that device and that customer. Then architect your customer channels in such a way that it is actually split from the data and the processes behind it, allowing evolution at the pace that is required, without major surgery needing to be carried out. The answer is not just HTML5 or Node JS or Facebook React – they are just the tools you can choose from when it comes to implementation.
This might sound like some kind of unreachable nirvana but the fact is that the thinking, tools and talent that you need to take this approach are available today among the start-ups and tech shops that are part of the open source community. I have spoken to people who are doing this kind of development right now for enlightened companies across a number of sectors who have decided that the status quo is no longer acceptable. This new 'top down' approach is being adopted by brands big and small who see that this kind of uncoupling is the only way they can be truly agile. Time to turn things upside down.