Business leaders are pushing hard for digital transformation, and they’re not prepared to wait months for results; digital workflow needs to be ready within weeks. That’s where low-code development is rapidly growing in popularity in Australia & New Zealand.

Easing the IT crunch

Australian IT departments are under huge strain to deliver on an unsustainable backlog of digital transformation projects, according to recent research conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Appian.

85% of Australian tech leaders report that growth in business project requests dwarfs IT budget growth.

At the same time, line of business leaders are asking for quicker delivery of projects. What might have once been an IT project with a six month delivery timeline is now expected within four to six weeks.

According to Infrastructure Australia, nine out of 10 businesses have adopted new technology during the pandemic to accelerate their process digitisation efforts.

One of the top technologies being adopted by Australian businesses is ‘low-code’ development, where applications can be built without needing to delve into programming languages. Instead, existing business processes can be drawn out on screen in lines, boxes and decision points and easily connected to existing data sources throughout the business.

The business process is then turned into an application by the low-code platform itself. The code is still there, in the background, but it’s automatically generated from a library of existing, tested and proven modular code.

Investing in low-code development pays off quickly. Forrester research found:

  • application development time is 17x faster than a customer code environment,
  • improved time to value (the time between when an investment in something is made and when an organisation starts receiving value from it) by 50%.
  • The average return on investment among Appian customers surveyed by Forrester was 389%.

The growth in the low-code developer workforce is now far outstripping that of traditional programmers. The number of low-code developers worldwide is forecast to grow 40.4% each year to 2025, 3.2 times the 12.5% growth forecast for general developers, according to IDC.

The IT conundrum – hire or upskill?

Attracting IT staff with the right mix of cloud and development skills is proving tough for employers in a hot employment market as businesses start recovering from the pandemic and ramping up operations ambitiously.

A Deloitte Access Economics report commissioned by the Australian Computer Society revealed that demand for IT workers is growing three times faster than the broader workforce.

As businesses scramble to digitise as many of their processes as possible, their use of multiple cloud platforms is growing, but often not in a coherent way. While using the best parts of each cloud provider is great for flexibility, it also translates to extra management complexity for IT.

The extra management overhead creates a catch-22 – IT teams need cloud development skills urgently, but IT managers struggle to give them the time out of their day jobs to upskill.

Low-code development is an alternative that can solve several problems – firstly, the cloud platform is provided by the low-code application provider, reducing cloud management complexity. Secondly, low-code platforms come with self-learning modules that non-IT staff can undertake, removing further workload from IT ops and dev teams.

For example, Appian Community provides free, self-service training modules, a sandbox development environment for staff to practice building apps in, and a community to allow staff to ask peers around the world to help them solve problems.

Using this capability, University of Wollongong staff were able to get up to speed quickly on Appian low-code development to create their own applications and online workflows.

"Appian’s simplicity lends itself to development speed, and we have attained high velocity delivery through a ‘partner developer’ model where students, faculties and other university departments can create apps themselves", says Fiona Rankin, CIO at the University of Wollongong.

“Appian has been a big supporter of UOW enabling its own staff to take ownership of and lead the development of apps that directly support the work they do,” explains Luke Thomas, Appian Area Vice President Asia-Pacific.

“Because staff own the app, they can take charge and reshape or enhance it with new elements at any time, to create continued improvement.”

Why low-code development is so fast

Low-code development has been around for a while, but many people still only have a limited understanding of why its simplicity can be powerful.

Put simply, it’s a platform where you “draw” your business processes in lines, boxes and decision points, and that is turned into an application by the low-code platform. Yes, there’s code sitting behind it, but that’s all generated and managed for you.

Appian CEO Matt Calkins explains: “Instead of writing code, you’re drawing shapes. Instead of using a keyboard, you’re using the mouse – it’s a very human way to communicate your intentions to a computer.”

And, Calkins adds, although this sounds simple, the best low-code platforms are deliberately designed to connect into legacy systems and databases already running across a business, something that is often one of the most complex parts of building new corporate applications.

Bendigo Bank has used Appian to quickly build more modern systems to provide better service to customers. Because low-code development allows for more rapid development cycles, it runs many of its critical processes on the Appian platform, including ATM Management, Credit Card Management, Fraud Management, Disputes, Loans, Mortgages, Merchant Services, and more.

“Our vision is to make our customers’ journey completely seamless, regardless of which part of our bank they are interacting with. The speed at which Appian helped us develop and deliver these mission-critical applications made them the ideal partner to bring our vision to life,” says Andrew Watts, former Executive for Customer Service Improvement, Bendigo Bank.

Adapting to change quickly

One of the defining features of business today is that processes need to be able to adapt very quickly to changing market conditions.

Where it may be easy for staff in a small business to change the way they do something simply by telling each other, a large business with a distributed workforce relies on digital processes to do things correctly thousands of times over.

The trouble is that once a process is coded and put in place, changing it is typically a months-long project involving budgets, approvals, resourcing and testing. Sometimes the change is so costly that a team gives up before they even begin, with the cost outweighing the benefit. But this is a false economy that leads to growing ‘technical debt’ – the amount of work a company owes its IT systems to bring them up to scratch.

Large businesses need to be able to update their processes quickly. While they often succeed through sheer capital and scale, they fail against smaller, more agile challengers in flexibility, which in turn risks their business model being disrupted in the long term.

It shouldn’t be that way, though, Appian CEO Matt Calkins says.

Because low-code development is mostly concerned with describing business process, when the process needs to change, the app built around it can be quickly adapted as well.

The platform looks after the code changes required in the background, so testing is also much quicker, because the code has been previously validated.

Is low-code shadow IT all over again?

IT professionals grit their teeth remembering the ‘shadow IT’ epidemic of the 1990s.

The proliferation of easy-to-use desktop database applications had the unintended consequence of employees accumulating valuable corporate data in personal databases on desktop computers.

These databases were often lost when staff moved on to new jobs, couldn’t be linked to other customer data in the organisation and risked being leaked without adequate security controls.

Remediating the problem and bringing data back into centralised data sources kept IT teams and data scientists busy for years.

So, are low-code apps leading companies down the same path of dangerous, unmanaged DIY projects?

The simple answer is no. In fact, if anything, low-code development is a response to the problem of shadow IT: it aims to give employees the tools they need to digitise processes, while keeping data centrally stored and giving IT a single control plane over the whole system.

In fact, the ‘shadow IT’ of 2022 is employees getting frustrated with how long it takes to get something from IT and going it alone with a publicly available cloud system. This has essentially the same risks as the shadow IT epidemic of the ‘90s, but the easy access of cloud systems means data leakage risks are magnified.

Low-code development is a solution to providing teams the functionality they want in a rapid timeframe, while keeping the platform overall properly secured and managed by IT.

Democratising data in the organisation

“It’s said that the most important asset of any organisation in the 21st century is its data,” says Appian CEO Matt Calkins. “That may be true – maybe – but data is only as useful if you can actually use it. The moment you need that data, and it’s stuck in a silo that you can’t access, and you don’t know what’s there, the data is actually worthless.”

Getting access to data is one of the most common frustrations in organisations, despite senior executives pushing for more data-driven decisions. Often, data teams have long queues of requestors fighting for priority.

Some of this is for good reason – access to sensitive data literally can’t be a free-for-all given data privacy regulations. However, it’s also untenable for all data access to be dependent on analysts manually extracting it.

Instead, data needs to be available to applications on an automated basis, and it needs to be easy for application developers to access.

When building a new application, it’s essential that the best data is available to inform the “to the moment of truth – the decision point in the app, or when you’re talking to a customer so it’s at your fingertips,” explains Calkins.

However, connecting into data sources can be painful. Knowing where to find the right data, linking different data sources together and maintaining high performance are the work that keep data scientists busy.

Calkins says that has had an unfortunate side effect on people digitising the processes in their business: “people who build applications just skip referring to external data, and in effect waste the data that should have been brought to bear on the decisions happening in that application.”

Appian comes with a wide range of data connectors designed to work with all the different data sources across an organisation, effectively providing a single view of all the company’s data, without having to migrate data out of legacy systems or build new connectors.

“What we do with low-code data is to take all the data around the enterprise and make objects out of it. Then, designers of new applications can simply drag and drop those data sources just as easily they could drop a node or arrow into their workflow,” Calkins explains.

Appian handles all the complexity of the connection into legacy data sources, and where a developer needs to relate one data source to another in their app, the Appian platform does that in advance, so that normally compute-heavy work doesn’t have to be done at the time of using the application.

Mobile first: write once, use anywhere

It is a constant point of friction for both employees and IT: trying to use legacy corporate apps on mobile devices. They often don’t scale to different screen sizes; controls don’t work properly with touch interfaces and they may depend on proprietary browser frameworks still hanging around from the Internet Explorer 6 era.

However, during the pandemic, mobile usage of corporate apps surged 3X, according to Appian CEO Matt Calkins.

As large as a 300% boost sounds, “that’s not as impressive as it should have been,” he says. “Appian mobile application usage was up by 20X in the last four quarters, because there are no impediments in the way of mobile usage in any of our applications worldwide.

“Our read from that was that the world wanted 20X mobile usage – but with other applications, they only got 3/20ths of what they wanted.”

When publishing on a low-code platform like Appian, apps are automatically adaptive to different browsers and platforms, and there’s nothing an app developer has to do in the future to support new ones.

“You build it once and then it is automatically published to every platform. It runs natively on every mobile device, and in the future when a new type of mobile devices is invented, the platform will simply add support for that device,” he explains.

This capability was important for University of South Australia, which wanted to move away from a paper form-based workflow to a modern web-based system which staff and students could use on any device.

By removing paper forms, it has also reduced the HR onboarding time from three weeks to just 24 hours. Its staff timesheet processes now run 20 times more quickly. Read more about how UniSA has been transforming with Appian.

Minimising the cost of change

One common story in new IT projects is the change management and re-training required to get a workforce comfortable with using a new application. It can be costly and disruptive to productivity.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way – low-code apps can be built to mimic the interfaces of legacy applications, while modernising the infrastructure behind them. (It’s the inverse of giving something “a coat of paint” – the front remains the same, while the core becomes modernised.)

Law firm MinterEllison recently used this capability in the Appian low-code platform to its advantage. Its business management system had reached the end of its useful life after 10 years of service, and the firm wanted to increase automation in its processes to reduce manual handling by staff and improve productivity.

But, despite the flaws of its old system, its lawyers and administrative staff were deeply familiar with how it worked.

“It would be difficult to drive uptake of a new platform that had a complex and confusing interface. When there are client pressures, and you’re working in 6-minute billing increments, learning a new system from scratch has its challenges,” MinterEllison Chief Digital Officer Gary Adler explained.

“However, by creating custom applications that have a familiar look and feel to what the lawyers use in their personal lives, and making the automation an invisible process running behind the scenes, we’ve ended up with a healthy queue of legal teams that want to be moved on to the platform immediately.”

The result was time savings of between 10 per cent and 30 per cent per legal matter, with MinterEllison calculating that the total time savings for the coming financial year will be the equivalent of 42,000 hours of lawyer and support staff time.

Low-code or automation? Why not both?

There’s been a lot of discussion over the last few years about “robotic process automation” (RPA) – essentially, using software to click the buttons in applications that humans used to have to do to carry out a process.

The trouble with RPA as a standalone thing is that if anything changes in the software at any point, the entire process can break. For example, if a software vendor moves a button to another spot on the screen or renames it, the software robot may not be clicking the right object anymore.

It can also be a distraction to doing the work that really needs to be done to properly automate a process, leaving a company in further technical debt.

If it’s simply emulating what a human is doing, that may not get the best results. The robot is still constrained by all the limitations of the existing systems now being automated.

In contrast, using a low-code development platform to describe a business process and turn it into a new application frees the process from the limitations of the old systems. The process may be able to access a much broader range of data sources within the business than before, allowing more nuanced decisions to be made during the process.

There’s still an immensely important role for automation – but it’s being used in a different way than the blunt tool of simply clicking buttons on a human’s behalf, explains Appian CEO Matt Calkins.

“The low-code market is now merging with the automation market. Low-code is about building applications by describing a workflow, and automation is about using a workflow to allocate work intelligently using AI for example,” explains Appian CEO Matt Calkins.

Virtual mobile network operator Belong is one provider that has been using Appian automation capabilities to great advantage, both for internal efficiency and protecting their customers. It is collecting and analysing information for detection of fraudulent activity across its network and products.

“One of the biggest business costs for Belong is managing fraudulent activity – primarily fraudulent users who on-sell our products without authorisation. Using Appian with some of our data platforms, we built a truly lights-out automation process to help identify fraud and act on sooner, saving the company time and money.

“The automation operates the whole process from end-to-end, including receiving and analysing data, managing the customer, and sending communications, ultimately saving the company a million dollars per year,” explains Carly Donnellan, Product Owner, Belong.

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