I’ll start with a bold statement: nothing is preventing your organisation from innovating today in order to keep pace with user expectations.

You may think you’re being held back by things like your IT legacy estate, but you’re not. When escapologist Harry Houdini used to unshackle himself from handcuffs, his astonished audiences thought it must be magic. However, the real explanation was that Houdini was a talented lockpicker and freed himself with a universal key hidden about his person.

Similarly, there’s no magic involved in escaping from the bonds of your legacy estate – just the proper use of another everyday tool that you’re already using: the humble API.

I’ll go on to explain how, but first I’ll give you a sense of the benefits your organisation is currently missing out on.

In with the new…

“Done properly”, APIs enable you to build digital services in a different way, one that gives you much greater flexibility and agility. Think modules rather than monoliths. Instead of large-scale systems that are very expensive to build and prohibitively expensive to change, you can build small-scale features and product increments. You can bring these rapidly to market, enabling you to test new propositions with a greatly reduced investment of time and money. All of which allows you to refocus your attention on where it should be – the needs of the user.

When I say “done properly”, I mean using APIs strategically, as “first-class” citizens – not as tactical, one-off technical solutions to meet an immediate business challenge. In this way, you can shape your IT to serve your objectives, rather than shaping your objectives based on the constraints of your IT.

And by building API services strategically in line with common industry standards, you begin to solve future technical challenges in advance, saving time and money for future projects and allowing you to innovate in response to demand.

New responsiveness in Government

Faced with the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, UK government departments were able to do precisely this. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had been building up a repository of high-quality API services for the last 18 months, and it was this that allowed the department to respond rapidly to diverse demands, configuring new system integrations across departments. These allowed DWP to: ramp up the number of citizen validation checks it could perform for DVLA in relation to HGV driver applications in support of NHS and supermarket deliveries; maintain a stable service for the NHS Prescription Exemption check while numbers rocketed up; and rapidly scale up the number of Free School Meals Qualification checks.

All of this has been made possible thanks to the common standards in accordance with which these API services were developed.

Mining more minds in banking

Building to common standards in this way helps to break down silos – both technical and business ones – within and between organisations. Our client NatWest Group was initially compelled to build its Open API services in compliance with the Open Banking Initiative. However, it very quickly began to see the vast opportunities its APIs presented to create new propositions and to unify existing ones, along with the disparate, monolithic systems that support them.

The connections could go even further, to the benefit of customers – that’s the promise of Open Finance. It aims to build on Open Banking and result in innovative services that use Open APIs to connect a much wider range of financial products and services – including pensions, mortgages and consumer credit. This could give customers much greater visibility and control over their finances. And in the next ten years or so, the UK’s energy sector is likely to go through a similar transformation.

Already, Open Banking has broken down silos between the UK’s largest banking groups and the ecosystem of new third-party providers that are accessing their Open APIs to develop new services for banking customers. The transparency of the Open API services and the data that can be accessed through them (with customers’ consent) is allowing the banking industry to access a much wider resource of ideation and innovation. The “hive mind” that can be applied to developing new banking features, products and services for customers has grown from single departments, to wider banking groups, to the whole open banking ecosystem.

Rapid ROI from opening up

In this new ecosystem, the UK’s banks are realising that they don’t have to deliver all the value to customers themselves. They can focus instead on where they add unique value.

Open APIs generate a similar scale of innovation and value generation in the public sector too. In 2010, Transport for London made large amounts of its non-personal data – such as timetables, service status and disruption – available for anyone to use free of charge via Open APIs. Deloitte measured the economic and social value generated for Londoners by these APIs and quantified it at £130M a year in benefits and savings.

…Out with the old

I started by saying that all of this potential for innovation is available to you today, and I meant it. The colossal scale of legacy IT makes it appear a dead weight, to escape from which would require a vast effort. But used strategically, APIs offer the equivalent of Houdini’s concealed key.

The problem is that for a long time, APIs have just been used tactically – a kind of salve offering a temporary relief from the chafing of the handcuffs. Using APIs to prolong the life of a legacy system simply adds to your organisation’s dependency on the legacy system.

Over time, these legacy system lifelines become a tangled mess, increasing your maintenance overheads. So, what’s the solution?

Liberation through isolation

The solution is to use APIs not to integrate with legacy systems, but to isolate them.

Clearly, this does not free you from legacy in a single bound. But your mind is instantly freed, allowing you to plan without your thinking being in any way constrained by legacy. You use APIs to isolate part or all of a legacy system, abstracting away from it and introducing control as you develop new features, products and services. Rather than using an API to expose value from the legacy system, the API itself becomes the value driver. The legacy system remains unchanged, meaning that no new dependencies are added.

In this way, APIs become a key tool in your incremental migration from your legacy systems. They allow you to maintain a level of service from your isolated legacy system even as you replace it, thereby unshackling you from lock-in.

Used properly, APIs place all of this in your control. You set the pace of this incremental journey, breaking down legacy into a prioritised backlog of smaller problems that can be addressed through APIs at a rate your organisation can cope with.

And with this control, you’re free to innovate and experiment. You can test out new services alongside your legacy service with a segment of your users and customers. You can deliver new user experiences, using APIs to enable people to interact with your products and services via an ever-increasing variety of devices. We supported Newcastle Strategic Solutions to do just this, isolating their legacy system and creating an API layer that allowed the development of a new white-label, cross-platform savings app for mobile.

Get started today

To help you get started in using APIs properly, have a read of my new white paper, Open your eyes to APIs.