Imagine using your smartphone solely to make telephone calls. Just imagine.

But it’s quite possible that your organisation is doing the equivalent of that. There’s a specific technical capability which already exists within your organisation, but it’s likely that you’re only using a fraction of its potential.

I’m talking about the humble API.

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) have existed for almost as long as digital technology itself. They define how digital systems interact with other digital systems – such as how they expose information, business logic and transactional services. Typically, APIs are used tactically by organisations on stand-alone projects, defining point-to-point connections between two or a handful of systems, to meet narrowly defined business objectives.

And yet they can do so much more. APIs “done properly” can be a significant strategic enabler, or even a whole new business proposition.

Consider how much your customer interactions, your staff’s roles, and your organisational structures and processes are defined not by customer needs but by the technology estate that underpins them all. It doesn’t have to be that way. When APIs are used to their full potential, they liberate you. You can think freely about your organisation and the value it can deliver, keeping pace with customer expectations in a world that is changing ever more rapidly around you.

To illustrate this, I’ll describe three of the many transformative ways that APIs can support your business goals, with brief examples from our recent client engagements.

Innovate and accelerate time to market

If you treat APIs like a first class citizen, they allow you to construct software in a better way. Rather than building monolithic single-use software, you build modular software for reuse. Think LEGO blocks rather than die-cast toys.

And the more proper API services your organisation creates, the more each new product or feature you develop gets a head start, with some of its technical challenges already solved. This allows you to accelerate your time to market, and focus your energy on testing and validating your proposition rather than solving technical challenges that have been solved already.

Fastmarkets – one of the world’s most trusted data providers for those involved in buying, selling and trading commodities – recently re-engineered the group’s dozen technology platforms into a single cloud-native platform. We were engaged to build a first-class front-end on top of that platform, surfacing its wealth of data using the high-quality APIs Fastmarkets had built. In addition to that, we prototyped, pitched and produced a value-adding mobile app for the client – in six weeks. Neither the app design nor the timescales would have been conceivable without Fastmarkets’ high quality API services.

Get value from legacy as you migrate from it

Rather than replacing one monolithic system with another, APIs allow you to shape a more agile, incremental strategy in planning your migration away from legacy. They can form a key element of a new modular approach to your IT infrastructure. In this infrastructure, there will eventually be no such thing as a legacy system as you understand it today – but rather a collection of much smaller services that can be updated, replaced or retired quickly and inexpensively in line with the evolving needs of your organisation.

With this strategy, you continue to derive value from your legacy systems even as you incrementally replace them. The API services you develop can connect legacy systems to new interfaces that offer the modern user experience your business and customers expect.

Newcastle Strategic Solutions is executing precisely this kind of strategy, developing an API layer on top of its resilient legacy platform as an enabler of rapid product innovation for its clients and their customers. We were engaged to support Solutions in building its new cloud infrastructure and API services. In parallel, we worked with the client to design and build a new white-label, cross-platform savings app for mobile, which Newcastle Building Society would be the first client brand to adopt. Marrying the latest web technologies with our high-quality UX design, the app has yielded outstanding customer reviews – all while surfacing customer data from legacy systems via APIs.

Refocus on the unique value you offer

Traditionally, organisations have tried to be all things to their customers – and what’s more they have striven to anticipate and stay ahead of customer demand. With the digital revolution, this is simply no longer tenable; the speed of technological innovation is too great – as is the attendant evolution of customer expectations.

The good news is that with APIs done properly, you no longer need to build everything. You can benefit from established industry and community standards. High quality, secure API services built to exacting standards already exist that will solve a range of your existing business challenges, saving you the time and expense of building that software from scratch.

The even better news is that with APIs, you have the option of focusing your energies on those parts of your proposition where your organisation provides unique value. You do this by opening up secure API services to a wider ecosystem of third parties who can meet customer needs that you would struggle to address. This requires a fundamental shift in organisational mindset, a reconception of your place in the world. But the rewards can be vast.

NatWest Group has achieved this change in mindset through its Open Banking Programme, in which we’ve been proud to play a part. In the space of two years, the group went from having 0 public APIs to serving 10s of millions of hits every month, thanks to the 100s of third-party providers that can now integrate with them. Reuse of the services has saved millions of pounds in the budgets of the group’s recent change programmes; and automation of internal processes using the services has brought major efficiency improvements. Cumulatively, APIs have more than proven their worth and transformed the group’s perspective on its role, from being the single provider of value to its customers to being a key enabler of beneficial customer outcomes. Through its APIs, NatWest Group has fundamentally repositioned itself to thrive in a new era of banking.

Register for API Revisited to explore further

Join us in Digital Leaders Week (12-16 October) for APIs Revisited, a series of non-technical online events encouraging you to look again at APIs and the transformative role they could play at your organisation.

Every day, 3pm–4pm will be ‘API Hour’! I’ll be getting the week started with a talk on the ‘Oft-untapped business potential of APIs’ and then each subsequent day, one of my expert colleagues will dig deeper into specific topics, from taking control of legacy to defining your API strategy to reflecting on the opportunities of open APIs.

Find out more and register your place here – we look forward to welcoming you.