Low-risk IT experiment No. 1: APIs
While some data must be kept secret, most information gets richer the more it is spread around. In fact, many Web companies trumpet the fact that they share some of their best data with others, even competitors. All it takes is the right call to their APIs.
Even the stodgiest 19th-century holdovers can benefit from releasing the right mixture of information through an API. All it takes is the ability to identify the information customers seek most and to build an API that reveals the right data to the right people at the right time.
In most cases, this information is already being delivered through a Web interface. An API would amount to the same information packaged in a programmer-friendly format such as XML or JSON. For example, a form on your Website can be recast as an API call to post data. Such an API would allow your business partners to automate the process of completing and submitting this form, thereby providing a deeper link between your Website and theirs.
Let's say your company requires registration for new customers. Turning this registration form into an API would enable your partners to register customers automatically. These clients can then gain access to the services of both companies, while both companies stand to greatly increase their customer base by working together through the use of this API.
Opening functions such as registration is easy; other data sources, however, require some care, as automation ceases to be a big help when it opens doors to spammers, bots, and other mixtures of minor and major fraud. Many APIs limit the number of times a partner can submit requests each day -- a simple barrier that can help ensure a mutually beneficial relationship. Companies such as Mashery.com aim to simplify many of the problems that can arise when you expose information in the form of APIs by offering simple throttling and authentication.
Finding the best way to work with other organizations via APIs is where the business development team can help. After the IT department has vetted possible features for the API, the business team can analyze the impact of the project, helping to guarantee that the company will gain maximum payback from this mode of opening data stores to partners.
An API, for instance, might save the company significant development costs if bundling information that way offloads meaningful development work onto its partners. Moreover, if the organization depends on the network effect to drive revenue through increased participation, for example, then the company can maximize its reach by pulling in as many new users as possible through the API. Opening up registration makes it easier for partners to share customers. If the goal is user-driven revenue, then the API should aim to convert users into paying customers by, say, limiting how much free information is available.
The side benefit is that API calls themselves produce plenty of worthwhile data that can be mined to support the bottom line. Even if the API calls are free, the patterns of requests could prove very valuable. Coupled with a NoSQL initiative (see "Low-risk IT experiment No. 5: NoSQL"), the data collected from API calls could surface unforeseen revenue opportunities.
All of these interactions begin with the tech team and end with polish from the business group. One opens up the data stream; the other decides how much to open the doors.