Connectivity between systems naturally produces economic efficiencies. When you can tap into data from a range of different platforms and generate new insights...

APIs and Collaboration

Connectivity between systems naturally produces economic efficiencies. When you can tap into data from a range of different platforms and generate new insights, you create opportunities to improve productivity and convenience for business and customers alike.

For most businesses pursuing an innovation agenda, such efficiencies can be realised through the use of APIs, or application program interfaces, that enable calls to and from a data source without compromising the underlying system holding that data. As a method of communication, an API can be used to provide value for users who are less interested in a data archive, and more interested in context-specific information. It is a mechanism that can protect both the end user and the data custodian.

Let’s take a look at the many potential uses for APIs and why you should include them in your collaboration!

APIs in practice

Probably the most commonly used API in existence is in tracking public transport. Around the world, cities are opening up the tracking programs they have been running on their transport vehicles, in order to provide customers with a clearer idea of when their next bus, train or ferry is due to pick them up.

From a customer perspective, knowing how long they have to wait till the arrival of their next transport source provides them with a sense of control over their travel experience. They know how long they have to fill in, and are more satisfied with their travel experience.

From a technical perspective, a software-based travel application is polling (checking in) with a data stream from the travel management authorities via an API. The API is protecting the data held by the travel management authority by only releasing the location-specific, time-specific information that is relevant to the user who is requesting details about their current travel plans. The traveler only needs a tiny slice of information. So the API effectively enables users to access made-to-order information.

Achieving insights with APIs

An API can be built around a source program (program-centric) or it can be web-oriented—for example, Representational State Transfer (REST), Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) or Remote Procedure Call (RPC). Both kinds of APIs are becoming substantial business assets in their own right, providing information back to firms about their customers. As well, APIs can be open, meaning any software developer can apply for a key to access the data, or closed, meaning they provide developer access to only a limited audience. In both cases, they are increasingly being used as a shortcut for improving productivity both within organisations and between organisations and their business partners.

APIs and collaboration software

So what does this all mean for collaborative software? Collaboration software was invented to enable different divisions within an organisation, or a company and its partners, to work together, usually in a cloud-based environment. That’s valuable in its own right, but if you can add a layer that provides data on day-to-day activities, then the collaboration can be much richer.

For instance, in a corporate scenario where the functions include sales, after-sales support, product development and perhaps even partner-managed distribution activities, these disparate functions may largely work independently of each other. But if you can use an API to track after-sales issues, and map these experiences with distribution problems or design weaknesses, then it can be easier to diagnose and solve productivity problems. In such scenarios, collaboration platforms can facilitate problem-solving, and they also can act as a kind of neutral location for data collection. APIs will ensure that data is as accurate and up-to-date as possible, and representatives from independent divisions will have the opportunity to work together to resolve any problems.

APIs are not just for tangible goods-based businesses. APIs can be used to integrate customer feedback (on social media or through customer service channels) with CRM and financial systems, or it can be used to aggregate and analyse requests for information across multiple data sources. The point is that when you use APIs with collaborative platforms, you create the context for collaboration as well as the opportunity for improving productivity.

Fostering API development

While the evidence is clearly in favour of using APIs on collaboration platforms to help drive effective problem-solving, it can be hard to foster an ecosystem of developers who will continuously innovate on behalf of a business. This is particularly difficult where companies are nervous about the notion of exposing their data to the world through an open API. With closed APIs, unless you are employing a full-time, multi-organisational IT team dedicated to API development, the opportunities for continuous innovation will inevitably decline over time.

Open APIs are another story. There is a large and growing contingent of skilled and ambitious software developers in the world, who are looking for the next big thing in software, either to build their own businesses or so they can be hired by enterprises. They are regulars at hackathons and they are often experts at preparing applications that generate clear insights.

While rapid prototyping events like hackathons are running in major cities almost every weekend of the year, enterprises still don’t invest enough in them. As part of a continuous innovation strategy, hackathons and design jams can be scheduled several times a year either to build new APIs or to generate applications which provide value across and between companies.

Collaboration platforms again provide a context where these rapid prototyping events can be digitally located in a way that protects company data. They can house existing plugins and reusable software components, as well as providing a sandpit for data sets. And they can be a space where subject matter experts from within and beyond a firm can work with development teams to deliver optimal experiences for stakeholders.

Summing it up

Customers increasingly want personalised information and resources that fit their needs. Whether on a transit system, in a restaurant, in the office or at home, the value of information that improves the quality of a customer’s experience is crucial to their satisfaction. And because each customer is unique, with their own custom requirements, they also want full integration of all information and applications into their own systems. And they can be demanding. They want all the collaborative features of their applications to be developed just for them.

Open APIs provide the opportunity for these demanding customers’ needs to be met, as well as to develop new products and innovate across all business activities. In an era where data is driving business reputation and productivity, enterprises that capitalise on the opportunities from open APIs will have a competitive advantage over their rivals. And organisations that use collaboration platforms and rapid prototyping as part of their innovation strategy will extract the greatest benefit of all.

About the author
Blog author joanne jacobs 82x82

Joanne Jacobs

Digital strategist and company director

Joanne Jacobs is an award-winning digital strategist and company director, and she is co-Director (with Gavin Heaton) of Disruptor's Handbook, a firm that facilitates incubation of innovation from a marketing perspective. She is on the Board of Code Club Australia, as well as the NSW Government Digital Advisory Panel, she is on a number of other industry advisory boards, and she is an active mentor of startups. She formerly ran the Australian office of 1000heads, a word of mouth marketing firm. In her career, Joanne has worked in London where she ran a social media production house, and she was a consultant in social networking technologies, as well as a professional speaker, business coach, trainer and strategist for digital marketing practices. Joanne also has a long history in academia, lecturing extensively in strategic use of information technology and strategic internet marketing. She was co-editor with Axel Bruns of the book, Uses of Blogs (2006).

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