Entrepreneurs have historically taken one of two approaches to IT. Most think of IT as a “necessary evil.” For this group, IT is for back office support for their business ideas. They typically hire third parties to help them with IT and never make it part of their core business. A second set of entrepreneurs focus on information goods and think of IT as the product. These entrepreneurs typically have an engineering background, and schools that support this approach have strong engineering departments. Given their capabilities, these entrepreneurs take a “do-it-yourself” approach and develop software to support organizational needs.
But today there is a third approach, one that will become the dominant path for most entrepreneurs, especially those building information products. This third way thinks of IT as essential for interacting with all of a new venture’s stakeholders. Importantly, though, entrepreneurs with this perspective are happy to use existing IT building blocks to create those interfaces. Theirs is a “bricolage” approach to digital.
Bricolage, a French word by origin, means the construction of things from a set of available items. The bricoleur is a French term for the person who employs such construction methods—in short, a handyman or jack-of-all-trades. Entrepreneurs today who practice digital bricolage can construct amazing companies and organizations from existing pieces, many of which offer capabilities once available only to large businesses.
Over the last 15 years, Internet giants have built platforms or utilities on top of the Internet that make innovation easier and faster. For instance, Amazon has created a cloud services business that enables established firms and startups alike to rent IT infrastructures and processes from Amazon. Amazon Web Services (AWS) has built a robust infrastructure that can handle heavy demand and has the spare capacity to let others use it. Microsoft, IBM, and Google offer similar services. Companies can also rent their business applications (for accounting and finance, human resource management, marketing and sales, collaboration, project management, and so forth) on-demand from companies like Microsoft, Salesforce.com, Workday, Hubspot, Yammer, Dropbox, Basecamp and others.
Another way to pursue digital bricolage is to share data and applications across organizations. This has been made possible with the arrival of application program interfaces or APIs. APIs are a technology that allows firms to interact and share information with other firms at an unprecedented scale. If your website needs mapping capabilities, you can get them through APIs from Google or Mapquest. If you need weather data for your site or your business, you can turn to Accuweather, Weather Channel, or Weather Underground. Need travel information or services? You can get them through APIs from the likes of TripAdvisor, Expedia, or Amadeus.
Some providers of IT capabilities have even created APIs for the core of their offerings. For example, when IBM unleashed the cognitive technology Watson, it did not try to create all the applications if the technology itself. Instead, IBM opened the APIs to Watson (there are now about 35 of them, with more being created all the time) and allowed third parties to use them for cognitive service applications. These APIs were picked up by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and other hospitals, for example, and developed into a highly useful oncology treatment application that doctors can use with patient encounters.
With APIs, data integration investments need not depend on relationships.