The productivity paradox: How low/no-code tools empower teams beyond silos

The productivity paradox: How low/no-code tools empower teams beyond silos

Airtable was recently named a “rising star” in low- and no-code technology by analyst firm ISG. In this post Ilan Frank, former VP of Product at Airtable, shares his perspective on the promises low/no-code platforms should deliver.

After many years building productivity software, I know adoption is key: Employees will abandon any tool that slows them down or that clashes with the way they work. For this reason, there are so many SaaS applications scattered across the enterprise. Tools for optimizing pieces of workflow or solving specific use cases; tools that force your team into silos and offer no opportunity for customization. Their proliferation is proof: We’re not approaching productivity in the right way.

Many leaders are stuck in a factory-line productivity paradox. You think: “If we can shave a few seconds off this workflow, or if we can solve this single problem in this corner of the organization, we’ll accelerate overall output.” Maybe output does accelerate, but the potential for growth is limited to only that process, only that team.

At Airtable, we think of productivity as entire organizations moving quickly, together. Team-level productivity tools might offer great efficiency within your workflow, but this happens at the expense of connectivity across the org. When you have 10 very efficient, distinctive parts, powered by 10 locally adopted tools, the company is pulled in disparate directions and big-picture productivity suffers. Without widespread connection, even the smartest productivity tools are doomed to fail.

Enter low- and now-code platforms. These systems can be customized for easy adoption across multiple teams, without creating massive chasms between them. They enable employees to build apps to make their work more efficient and effective. And they contribute to a culture of innovation that bolsters retention and morale. For these reasons, low-code technology is currently a $15 billion industry and, according to Information Services Group (ISG), is expected to quadruple in the next five years.

Airtable is thrilled to be recognized as a “rising star” in this space by ISG, and we have seen how low-code platforms can change enterprise SaaS adoption. This vantage point shapes the way we’re building the Airtable Connected Apps Platform, which pushes the boundaries of low-code technology into a single platform for building and connecting apps.

If it’s not a shared data system, low-code will exacerbate silos

A low-code system that doesn’t bridge teams is just helping more people build more silos.

Knowledge workers today have the creativity and technical know-how to choose the way they work, and denying them this choice can quickly dampen your competitive advantage. We’ve learned from our customers that the only way to move at speed is to allow end users to automate, connect, and extend their own work—and to do all this without crowding IT’s backlog week after week. But how do you offer this autonomy without exacerbating silos? By choosing a low-code platform that’s built on shared data.

A platform built on shared data elevates low-code from a system that automates tasks and spins up workflows (many tools can do this) to becoming the connective tissue that unites your org through data. An effective low-code platform should free your teams to bounce critical information back and forth, ensuring that every decision (no matter how fast) moves the company in the right direction.

One company who we've seen deeply benefiting from this empowerment is iHeartMedia, the world’s leading distributor of podcast content. There, the team uses Airtable to manage the production and metadata of thousands of podcasts, reaching more than 34 million people and attracting 456 million downloads each month.

“Marketing teams, publishing teams, business development teams, sales teams… These are very different teams with very different workflows but they all need access to different parts of the same data,” Carrie Lieberman, Senior Vice President at iHeartMedia, said during her session at the Airtable Leaders Forum last month. “We needed a solution that could be flexible enough that it could work for all these different teams, and share the information in certain ways.”

Low-code should not replace all existing systems of record

A low-code system should connect, not replace, vital systems of record.

Every organization has pre-established core business systems of record. Your customer relationship management (CRM) system, for example, is probably where your customer records should live. Your IT service management (ITSM) system is where your support tickets should live. And your human capital management (HCM) system is where your people’s records should live.

We're not talking about replacing these fundamental systems of record; we're talking about engaging them and elevating their data, connecting the information within and making it actionable across every employee’s workflow. An effective low-code system should lock into the tools your teams use daily, building on the open, shared data model to connect all information living across your org.

Imagine the possibilities if key trends and patterns from your support tickets could be used to drive investments in your product roadmap. Or, if your win/loss insights from Salesforce could inform strategic decisions by your exec team. What momentum would that unlock?

If it doesn’t delight, the system will fail

This generation of knowledge workers has high expectations when it comes to usability.

The workforce today is the iPhone generation; they grew up with a beautiful device in their hand that was very, very powerful but also extremely easy to use. This expectation of usability extends to the software we use in the workplace: a low-code system must offer ease-of-use and delight.

For this reason, low-code providers that have traditionally served only IT teams might struggle to stay competitive in this growing market. It’s very difficult to take a complicated platform that addresses sophisticated use cases, and then simplify that system to make it more adoptable.

At Airtable, our connected apps strategy empowers end users to first build apps for the most critical, yet simplest use cases. And then scale that connection and sophistication across the enterprise. This adoption-first approach is critical for the type of productivity we’re striving for: employees should be able to experiment, innovate, and create their workday in the most intuitive way possible, without losing connection with the rest of the org.

The role of IT should change alongside low-code adoption

IT teams must shift from gatekeepers of apps to partners in change.

Certainly, there’s risk in implementing low-code platforms in the name of productivity. When employees are connecting systems or record or making data more transparent or bridging silos with automations, this might threaten data integrity, security, and compliance. To mitigate these risks, your low-code system must strike a balance between central governance and end-user flexibility. And to make this happen, the role of IT must adapt alongside low-code adoption.

The leaders I’ve seen embracing this change are actively shifting IT from the gatekeepers of all business apps, to partners in innovation and customization. IT can play a new role in deeply understanding the needs of the business: enabling every team to build and deploy the technology that is right for them, while still enforcing connection across the enterprise. They can also become the leaders of a cross-functional focus around data governance—driving accessibility and availability, without putting the company at risk.

“We have seen an evolution in IT organizational models to democratize software adoption and development at scale,” the report from ISG states. “Many organizations are testing central IT functions with local federated champions to support this trend."

One CIO I’ve seen do this effectively built, what he calls, a “Quick Apps Team”, and that team’s job is to develop apps in three to four weeks alongside business owners. After that build, the ownership of the app is firmly in the hands of end users. The market has seen similar trends, with different teams or org-wide dynamics evolving alongside the role of IT. This type of approach pulls IT out of maintaining all code and apps, to becoming a catalyst of change across the organization.

These four factors—shared data, connection, usability, and the changing role of IT—help prevent low-code from becoming yet another siloed solution that solves for just one team or just a single workflow. By choosing a low-code system that meets these criteria, you can achieve widespread adoption while expanding your team’s focus beyond the information and processes directly in front of them, to the context and insights shared throughout the org. I believe this approach is the only way organizations can achieve the type of productivity that really matters—moving quickly, together.

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