In an article for CIO, Pitney Bowes Chief Innovation Officer James Fairweather discussed creating a pattern of development while turning company-wide attention to the adoption of a critical technology, enabling the century-old company to reshape the way it works and empowering client success.
Speaking with other businesses in his industry, Fairweather has seen the term “digital transformation" used as a skeleton key for troubleshooting. This generalization glosses over the greater potential of digital transformation to transform how people work together, without examining the nuances of “how companies get economies of scale and deliver better client experiences from their transformation investments.” Thoughtfully chosen transformations have the potential to influence how clients will perceive an enterprise.
During his time working with Pitney Bowes, Fairweather found that what would allow their team to structure operational and organizational developments that would build benefits beyond technology alone would require a focus on the broad adoption of a critical technology. This focus, and the “creation of a pattern of development—in our case, API management—enabled us to create operational and organizational changes that went well beyond the benefits of the technology alone.”
For a century Pitney Bowes has focused on inspiring solutions for clients: in recent years this focus has turned to the distribution of physical mail. “We needed to rethink our existing processes and create many new ones. One important step was our turn to APIs, which we use to efficiently access commonly used data sources, share resources, adopt common patterns, and reuse existing technological capabilities.” Extending the core business of Pitney Bowes beyond mail to the inclusion of small parcels, the facilitation of returns, and the handling of handling duties, taxes, and compliance with customs regulations in 220 countries would be a major step forward towards our new focus. “This well-established practice helped create repeatable processes, instead of relying on custom-crafted software integrations.” The decision to use a well-trod API management platform greased the wheels of the rollout process, as the developers were predominantly familiar with the platform.
Evolving into an API-facing stance set off a domino effect in changes to the way teams share: resources move between teams more quickly and teams “interoperate on the fly to reach specific goals.” Fairweather pointed to Southwest Airlines as an example of the inspiration the team referred to when creating a consistent and repeatable "API-facing" developer model “Since 1987, Southwest has used only 737 jets, which has eased aircraft maintenance and turnaround and created a common client understanding of what to expect on a Southwest flight. We envisioned APIs having a similar impact for us—by consistently pointing both internal developers and external clients to the same well-tested and scalable technology interfaces, we now have an environment of familiarity, high reuse, and minimal exceptions.” Fairbanks believes that building common threads that move internally and externally creates transparency and therefore a better experience for everybody involved in a project: It’s a better developer experience and helps sales and support teams better explain our solutions to clients.
API-led development has changed the way we operate. As part of the change management, we moved to interoperating teams and created a campaign of cross-organizational "micro celebrations" throughout our transformation journey to highlight our victories and publish statistics on our progress. By celebrating sales wins and technical milestones, we educated people about our new digital technologies. This built confidence in our solutions and our direction—a key part of creating successful change.
In order to maintain the high speed of growth in the delivery of shipping services to clients, APIs became the internal centerpiece. This brought about an environment of consistency which narrowed project delivery time from two years or more down to several months. Fairbanks praised the ease of internal transitions: The quality of our tools, the unity of our people, and the urgency of change have enabled us to speed the creation of new value in the form of new applications, services, and offerings...that's a reduction of about 85%. In what has proven to be an outstanding example of making the right choice at the right moment in time, having an API-facing plan was critical to client success during the global pandemic.
After building this new approach, Pitney Bowes was able to move the goalpost: they wanted to empower clients to define their own rules, and create their own scenarios which they would then be able to invoke programmatically, by using APIs to better manage services and enable more choices. “Thanks to API-based business logic, our clients can now review multiple shipping scenarios and choose the one that best matches their stated strategy—for example, the lowest cost delivery route that meets a specific on-time delivery criteria, or the option that uses specific modes of transportation to more economically move the parcel, or ensure the lowest environmental impact.”
Fairbanks’ team has also developed plans to move towards an offering built on data science models for clients looking towards the benefits of advanced analytics in logistics. “These models are exposed as APIs, so our clients can rapidly integrate the insights and predictions into their experiences.” Pitney Bowes has created an intelligent logistics and delivery system, using “logistics network simulations and data-driven decision-making exposed as APIs.” This innovation may quickly become the new standard in business operations.
Pointing to the idea of Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham University, Fairbanks quotes the idea that "we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us." Fairbanks concludes uptimately that “API management has reshaped both the way we work, and the way we help our clients—from small businesses, enterprises, and retailers to large marketplaces—succeed in the increasingly complex world of commerce.”