When Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.‘s 40,000 employees start their work day, they don’t log into unwieldy business applications. Instead, they log into a seamless workplace experience that mimics how they use their personal computing devices.
“When I go into work, it should be simple,” says Jeff Schumann, director of enterprise marketing and collaboration for the $24.5 billion-a-year, Columbus, Ohio-based company. “I don’t need training for Facebook or Gmail, so why should I need training for an HR software?”
Schumann, recruited from the startup world several years ago to inject Nationwide with a more innovative spirit, is one of the main forces behind the company’s intranet portal, SPOT, the second version of which was launched in December. Designed as a sort of smartphone home screen on steroids, SPOT lets employees pick “microapps” from a growing app store to create personalized workspaces that map to their needs and adapt to whatever devices they’re using.
The secret sauce behind SPOT and the emerging workplace computing strategy it represents is the application programming interface. Today’s APIs are specifications that enable data to be easily moved into and out of applications, but that unassuming description belies the increasingly critical role they’re playing in business computing.
In many ways, APIs are the keys to unlocking the value of business data, ushering in a new approach to application integration, and making employees more productive. Just as Web APIs have long enabled Websites to share data and features with other sites and applications, APIs are now empowering enterprises to exert greater control over the look and feel of applications and the portability of the data within them.
Nationwide’s app store approach is expected to gain steam as enterprises look to transform their IT environments to deliver consumer-like experiences. Gartner predicts that by 2017, 25 percent of all enterprises will have their own app stores, which will depend on APIs to let employees get data into and out of the apps they use.
“APIs are part of a global sea change in what companies are expected to be able to do with technology in general,” says Alex Bakker, senior research analyst at IT consultancy Saugatuck Technology. “There are virtually no applications being built without API acceptability.”
Along those lines, Nationwide’s Schumann says the company always looks at whether software vendors have strong APIs before bringing in a new application. What’s very important, he says, is how easy it is to get data into and out of the tool.
The Critical Role of APIs
APIs play a critical role at Nationwide: They’re used to enable SPOT to reach into applications to exchange data. For instance, one API lets employees pull data from the company’s back-end time-off system via a microapp that quickly shows them how many vacation and sick days they’ve accrued. Another API enables companywide crowdsourced sharing of data about the location of anything—from conference rooms to restrooms to specific employees’ desks.
Schumann says that in one year, the time-off microapp saved $1 million in productivity because employees didn’t have to repeatedly log into the back-end system. At some point, he expects to verify that the location app and other time-saving apps deliver similar savings.
With 25 apps in the SPOT app store thus far, and 400 going through a governance process to ensure that they’re useful and secure enough to warrant inclusion, it’s easy to foresee APIs becoming a major bottom-line contributor in the future.
“There’s no doubt that we’re going to be introducing tens of millions of dollars in productivity savings” via SPOT microapps, Shumann says. SPOT’s fast-growing value is a main reason Nationwide will host three hackathons this year, inviting its 1,000 developers to see what new apps they can whip up with APIs.
Other companies are likely to find that experimenting with APIs will lead them to the kinds of time savings and associated productivity gains that Nationwide has achieved. Christine Dover, a research director at IDC, says APIs are especially effective at breaking down the kinds of application and data silos that can bog down companies with unnecessary manual procedures.
“APIs make it easier to integrate data and streamline business processes, resulting in more efficient ways of doing business, and freeing up resources to do other things,” Dover wrote in an email to Baseline.
API-enabled platforms also act as much-needed buffers, inserting lightweight, user-friendly interfaces between employees and the monolithic apps they’ve depended on in the past. “Our associates have no need to even know the vendor that’s behind the data,” Schumann says. “All they need to worry about is the experience.”
That indicates how much the modern API could transform the software industry. Rather than trying to build interfaces that will spur employee adoption, Schumann advises enterprise apps makers to focus on what they do best.
“They’re great at storing the data, managing the data, securing the data and ensuring that people have access to the right data,” he says. “But they stink at creating the end-user experience for presenting that data.”
That’s nothing a well-designed API can’t fix.