The Whole Bit About End-to-End Solutions

7 minute read
Scott M. Fulton III avatar

We like to think in more practical terms and simpler models. We appreciate ideas when they can be described linearly. We prefer headlines that start with digits, or at least Google says we do.

When business ideals can be communicated as simply as possible, as through a tweet, a flowchart or a PowerPoint presentation that stops just before the point where it gets boring, we promote them to axioms.

One Funeral at a Time (Please)

The latter half of the twentieth century, in the history of business, was almost entirely about the effort to align simple, one-dimensional ideals with the nature of information technology.

I say “the effort,” because it may still take time for us to come to the realization that quite a lot of this effort has failed.

This failure is not a terrible thing.

Science had to wade through a long, excruciating period where celestial bodies were suspended in place through the unseen forces of a translucent ocean called the “luminiferous ether,” before scientists came to discover that light was particles and waves independently and celestial bodies didn’t float on it.

It’s not a simple, linear model and on a lexical level, it still doesn’t make sense. The whole particle and/or wave notion of subatomic physics isn’t logical, if we assume all logic is one-dimensional. Which physics is certainly not.

Information technology is also not one-dimensional. In gauging our relative ability as a society to grasp this realization, compared against the progress of physicists in comprehending Max Planck’s concept of light, we’ve been stuck in the 1920s for at least three decades.

Historians write about the great revelations in physics as works of genius. People who hope to become historians someday (yes, I have someone in particular in mind) ascribe the great revolutions in IT to Steve Jobs, and elevate him to the rank of genius.

One of the great realizations we have yet to fully appreciate is that Apple’s success is due, in very large measure, to the failure of almost everyone else.

In both fields, Jobs and people like Planck did have the following in common: They discovered solutions to the problems at hand by renouncing their allegiance to what pretended to be “solutions.”

To borrow Planck’s words (translated from German): “Truths never triumph; their opponents just die off. Science advances one funeral at a time.”

If information professionals are to escape the 1920s, step one will be for them to let go of several of the linear, capsule-form, “Chicken Soup for the CIO” ideals to which organizations are still clutching, as with security blankets.

Burning the Candle Whole

One such ideal is the “end-to-end solution.”

With respect to customer experience (the quality upon which customers rely to judge the value of dealing with businesses), many companies over the years have promised to “deliver end-to-end customer experience.”

Yet we know from experience, to overload that poor word, that customer experience is an evolutionary thing.

If it is the job of every organization to map its own customers’ experiences and plan to respond to each of the stops in their respective journeys, as it has been suggested, then any information system designed to be responsive to such mappings must be adaptable, especially when the maps change.

The maps definitely change. The desktop-centric, browser-based web of the 1990s is no longer the principal online channel of organizations that know how to truly reach their customers.

We call the phenomenon “mobility” and pretend it was invented yesterday. Technology has always been shrinking. It’s only within the last few years that it shrunk to a critical point where it became economically feasible to place a mobile ecosystem in people’s pockets.

A surprisingly large number of firms tried to do precisely that, either as soon as it was feasible or slightly before. Again, Apple didn’t fail at it.

Monolith to Monolith

A map of any “customer journey,” circa 2005, bears almost no resemblance to such any such map today. Yet many of the “end-to-end solutions” from that time are still in place, cranking out Web pages in the era of apps.

How many organizations do we know that are stuck with making the new model of digital customer engagement (which involves the use of those small, flat things customers carry in their pockets) fit the old model of content delivery?

And among those, how many can you see in your mind right now for whom the instrument of their being stuck is the “end-to-end solution” that was sold to them ten years ago?

Or, worse still, the ten-year-old “end-to-end solution” that was sold to them last week?

Learning Opportunities

We’re only just now awakening to the realization that nothing fixed in stone stands the test of time. Just last year, Forrester chastised the DX market for having no clear leaders in delivering an “end-to-end solution.”

As CMSWire’s Dom Nicastro reported then, Forrester took vendors to task for failing to provide “overall completeness” toward delivering any kind of “unified platform.”

Yet as one of the authors of that report, Mark Grannan, explained to me Thursday in CMSWire’s premiere edition of DX Digest, businesses are just now starting to understand that customer journeys are not made up of paths between monoliths.

Forrester finally got the memo.

Now, I know what Grannan would probably tell me: Leaders in a market space are perceived to be the ones who have an iron in every fire, and Forrester’s clients appreciate those vendors who fire on all cylinders, who wage war on all fronts.

Maybe. But take a good, hard look at all the information technology ever produced where there is one vendor’s stamp on each and every part.  And ask yourself why anyone would want that today.

The Beauty of Decoupling

APIs have an elegant purpose in information technology. They are truly “interfaces” — not by the misinterpreted definitions from the ‘90s, but the original one from the ‘70s:  They enable connections and disconnection.

The term for it in IT is “decoupling.” The principle is this: Systems must evolve to adapt to societies that evolve.  It is easier to innovate systems in segments rather than as a whole.

Decoupling enables developers to insert “layers of abstraction” between segments that rely upon each other but don’t need to be welded to one another — for instance, databases to Web forms, content to browsers, applications to servers.

Virtualization is the most effective form of decoupling ever created.  It enables a separation of functions, so that what’s running the application isn’t tied up with running the computer at the same time.

The problem with abstraction layers is that they’re abstract. It’s difficult to conjure a concrete message for marketing an abstract product.  Sometimes, marketers give up and call it an “end-to-end solution” anyway.

Be wary of any IT product or service whose vendor tries to pass it off as an “end-to-end solution.” True, it may actually be practicable. It may end up being the one you choose.

But there are two possibilities:  Either it’s trying to lock you into one way of addressing the task at hand — in this case, mapping your customer journeys — or it is so abstract that its marketing team doesn’t really know what it is.

You can’t blame them. I explain containerization to folks again and again, and several of them still aren’t clear on it.

The centralized palaces of content upon which organizations thought they could leverage their entire knowledge bases, are inadequate to the task of responding to customers, and the journeys they build for themselves.

There’s a reason it’s called “mobility.”  It’s because customers are in motion. Information technology must be in motion as well.

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