The story of IT’s consumer revolution – part two


Continued from part one

‘Systems of Engagement’ are an inherent feature of IT’s consumer revolution – put simply, they power the interactions that we as consumers now expect from the organisations we engage with. As explained in part one, Systems of Engagement centred on customisation – empowering consumers and businesses alike to do more with the technology available. Consumer systems of engagement may have followed a different path to their enterprise counterparts, yet since both shared the same fundamental purpose, both were susceptible to serious challenges as the turn of the century approached.

Many readers will recall the ‘Y2K’ hysteria, also known as the ‘Millenium Bug’. It might seem rather quaint in today’s world, but a relatively straightforward challenge relating to how calendar data was formatted and stored caused a huge panic at the time. The COBOL and FORTRAN systems still in widespread use tended to represent the four-digit year with just two digits, making the year 2000 indistinguishable from the year 1900. The assumption of a 20th century date in such applications caused various errors, such as the wrong display of dates and the inaccurate ordering of automated dated records (or even real-time events). A huge amount of money was spent in Enterprise IT in the late 1990s to fix these ‘date problems’ that experts thought would befuddle those old COBOL and FORTRAN programs and cause global system-wide software crashes. Remarkably, there was so much overspending on the Y2K problem in Enterprise IT that in the first decade of this century, there was even a pause in enterprise IT spending. Enterprises simply struggled to scale out IT in a cost-effective manner.

The consumer revolution

Yet while spending on business technology slowed, consumer IT was beginning to find its feet. By the mid-2000s, consumers were introduced to all manner of innovations that are now expected as standard, from YouTube through to social networks like LinkedIn, even smartphones themselves. Now, apps on mobile devices demonstrated the cutting-edge of computing technology, and creating a compelling user experience became its main purpose. These consumer systems of engagement all emphasised high performance, sophisticated user experiences, and accessibility across all manner of different devices. Many of the ‘born-digital’ firms behind them even had to develop their own database technology to support these new innovations, since the existing technology couldn’t.

Fast-forward to today, and the influence of these consumer systems of engagement on enterprise technology is clear. Organisations now look to the collaboration and communication capabilities of consumer technologies to solve business issues. Moreover, end users, already accustomed to the experiences consumer technology can offer, are increasingly expecting feature-rich, personalised and responsive experiences from their enterprise applications, across all manner of different devices.

Evidence of this change is apparent across all industries. Digital pioneers like PayPal, LinkedIn and eBay all consistently upgrade the experiences they offer their customers, with each iteration seemingly more personalised and responsive than the last. Meanwhile, their more established counterparts – firms like Walmart, GE and Nike, for example – seem to recognise the importance of ‘going digital’ as a way to innovate, transform and grow. Indeed, these businesses recognise just how vital digital transformation is in maintaining competitive advantage; after all, failure to adapt to these digital requirements has been fatal for several former industry titans thus far. ‘Going digital’ has therefore become a strategic imperative. Indeed, as far back as 2016, analyst house IDC identified the importance of specialist digital innovation teams. It held that these teams would need to be focused on agility to adapt to industry changes, creating responsive, context-aware customer experiences, and the ability to support a growing number of users across multiple channels.

The legacy shortfall

In their efforts to meet these new demands, many organisations are coming to realise that these requirements can’t be met at the application level – they need to be met by the database itself. Yet legacy databases are often beset by rigid schemas, performance challenges and a lack of scalability – all accompanied by a high cost. These systems were largely built with functions like enterprise resource planning or enterprise content management in mind, and as the need to expose these applications to the web first became apparent, caches were added on top to improve performance.

For a system of record alone, rigid schemas, an inability to handle unstructured or semi-structured data and limitations with scaling up are not substantial problems. Yet the introduction of mobile technologies, social platforms, Internet of Things applications and all manner of other new innovations has brought these challenges to light – it is now clear that systems of record are not able to keep up.

This has given rise to the ‘NoSQL’ database, built to meet the flexibility and scalability demands that modern businesses have. Organisations now require more in-depth functionality to power the type of experiences that customers now expect, and demand for NoSQL technology that combines in-memory capabilities with richer querying and indexing functions, and even offline access, is growing.

Looking ahead

At this point in IT’s evolution, the line between consumer and enterprise technology is increasingly difficult to spot. The consumer technology giants we’re familiar with today did such an impressive job of redefining what customers should expect from their products that a key focus of today’s enterprise technology is the pursuit of ever more sophisticated customer experiences. Indeed, the pursuit of digital transformation – now a board-level issue for many organisations – is largely manifested through technologies such as the IoT, cloud computing, mobility and AI – all of which aim to make the end user’s job easier. As customers continue to get accustomed with the experiences offered by the big consumer technology providers, this trend isn’t likely to disappear.

The underlying focus behind each of these innovations is engagement. The shopper browsing products on a mobile app wants more than just the final transaction, they want their retailer to provide a tailored, sophisticated experience. The same is true for the digitally empowered traveller, media consumer or patient. As such, a system designed to support that final transaction, rather than the engagement customers expect, has become increasingly outmoded. As IT’s consumer revolution continues to take hold, organisations increasingly need a solution capable of providing more engaging experiences.

Sundar Nathan, Director of Product Marketing, Couchbase
Image source: Shutterstock/Maxx-Studio