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How Composable Architecture Became the Must-Have Competitive Advantage

Despite the outsized product success of implementing composable technology for enterprise software, we’re still years away from a majority adoption.

Enterprise software for product manufacturing is on the cusp of a sea change, and experts are predicting who will prove to be ship captains—and who risks falling overboard. 

By year-end of 2025, Gartner predicts 30% of available PLM applications will be built on top of composable technologies, the buzzwordy way of saying that application users can adapt to changing business needs without waiting months for IT development.

The report entitled “Market Guide for PLM Software in Discrete Manufacturing Industries(note: requires subscription) is the first in years that analyzes the PLM software competitive landscape and defines composable technology as the outlying factor for who will emerge victorious. 

Composable technology isn’t necessarily new, not if you ask the software developers at industry-leading SaaS companies such as Salesforce, who’ve been working toward this goal for years.

What is new is the digital-first, omnichannel, customer-led market whose only constant is change. Whose only accurate forecast is its unpredictability.

To that end, the best-in-class companies—the (sea) captains of industry—are harnessing the power of change, rather than resisting it. They’re leveraging the bottomless well of innovation that is composable technology to remain nimble. To zig when the market says to zig, to zag when their customers say to zag.

The superpowers of composable technology 

Composability is just as it sounds, allowing features to be manipulated quickly by enterprise software developers and business users alike, using highly customizable, drag-and-drop components.

Ron Hess, co-founder and CTO of Propel Software, describes the flexibility of this level of customization. “Composable technology allows your team to design business processes using blocks that make sense to address specific business requirements. Individual analysts who are closest to the problem can construct a flow using the platform flow builder, and the individual blocks can be constructed and displayed using the web components framework.”

Think of these blocks like LEGO blocks (in reality, they’re called lightning web components, which you can learn all about here), and think of the flow as the LEGO instructions you received with your LEGO set.

Except, with composable architecture, you write the instructions yourself.

Hess goes on to explain that “the result is a tailored business process from within a configurable framework that meets the requirements for your business. The resulting process is completely end-to-end composed of reusable components.“

Why is composability important? The name of the game is rapid innovation.

For PLM users, the prevailing benefit of composable technology is the speed at which development teams can put their concept together, prototype it, see it in action, get feedback from business users, play with it, and go. 

Compare this to the old guard process of bringing your requests to an IT team, who may then take weeks, months, maybe even years to get a new technology to do their job.

The dream of achieving a “scrum” or “sprint” software development strategy is miraculously accessible with composable architecture. 

Development teams can realistically stick to an agile framework, which involves getting the requested features done right the first time, and getting them into the business user's hands quickly.

Mike Fullmore has been a software engineer for some of the biggest players in application design, such as Facebook, Pinterest, and Salesforce. He asserts that “one of the biggest advantages of composability that goes unrecognized is business users don't have to wait for long, arduous release cycles to get new features.”

As the current Principal Software Engineer at Propel, Fullmore further describes how composability effectively brings together the software development and business sides of an organization. 

“It is basically a blending of the scrum agile development cycle, pushing over to the business side. It enables us to say to business users ‘we can rapidly prototype things for you, and we can get your feedback right away.’ It means putting the demo mentality in front of the business.”

Salesforce, the leader of LEGO blocks

Those taking notes thus far may have highlighted these underlying benefits of composability: customization, rapid deployment, and ease of use. 

Moreover, Gartner describes composable architecture as working best “with open APIs and low-code application platform visual software development environments.” 

These key ingredients “enable enterprise developers and citizen developers to drag and drop application components, connect them together, and create mobile or web apps.”

The global giant and business application platform provider Salesforce fits this description to a T, perhaps one of the many reasons why it recently made headlines overtaking the legacy provider SAP as the world’s biggest producer of enterprise applications. 

Salesforce's composability superpower is its business application development framework Lightning Web Components (LWC). The customizable components in LWC tick all of Gartner’s aforementioned boxes: open API, drag-and-drop, highly visual, with no code or low code required.

But how does that translate to a competitive advantage for product companies and PLM enterprise software users?

When you take all of the ingredients above and add in a dash of custom components designed especially for product management, you have a recipe for PLM success.

Fullmore describes this in terms of his work for Propel, “Salesforce is the ideal platform to build this on, but Propel adds all of the logic and the design on top of that, allowing our customers to build their own custom flows or to use the open APIs to further their business process.”

In other words, Salesforce provides the LEGO blocks, but it’s up to the enterprise software provider to turn them into the fully constructed model of, say, the Starship Enterprise.

(Get it, “enterprise?” See what we did there?)

As Fullmore puts it, “We complement each other to make this total solution. Salesforce alone would still need all the people hours of Propel, in order to be able to build these widgets and these components that we provide for product development processes.” 

All these people hours are what puts a composable PLM way ahead in the market, as Gartner is predicting. The intellectual property and value add of a specific PLM is not simply the assembly of the LEGO blocks, but packaging them correctly with the right business logic. 

Hess adds “as you're constructing your PLM, as you're listening to your internal users, and you're building your PLM requirements, you can actually use the Propel composable components to solve the unique problems that only you and only your company faces.” 

Augmentation through integration

A reality in the world of SaaS providers is there are always applications out there able to provide hyper-specific functionality to your users who need even more customization for their needs. Composable technology includes the critical feature of quickly and easily enabling integration with other applications.

Hess provides a specific example of this. “Propel formed a partnership with supply chain data and intelligence provider SiliconExpert, who offers real-time information critical to accelerating your supply chain. And we can bring that into the Propel environment by creating one component.

“This component includes the context of the parts you're using, the context of the supply chain, and the context of the outside world—things that you can control and things that you can't control.”

Gartner’s report emphasizes how PLM works successfully by centering unambiguous master data and rich product content. As Hess suggests, an integration with a company like SiliconExpert provides exactly this type of data, imperative to market research, defining R&D through the whole product flow—from sourcing it, ramping it, to selling it.

Another common case for integration is when an existing application is so inherent in day-to-day workflows, a SaaS provider would have a much easier time selling business adoption by promoting easy integration into that application versus developing their own version.

In simpler terms, why reinvent the wheel when you could simply include the OG wheel in your offering? Let’s say, for instance, the wheel is the major business communication tool Slack.

Hess explains that “Successful companies have discovered the value of Slack for communication; however, you still need to connect your engineers and your supply chain with your product data. So that product information inside Propel can be linked and shared to a diverse audience within Slack."

“In fact, we have an upcoming product announcement which will allow our customers to also review and approve changes to their products directly from within Slack—useful for executing simple tasks quickly. In this way, Slack becomes an extension of the Propel user interface.”

PLM solutions built with composable architecture are able to support these integrations, such as SiliconExpert and Slack, by allowing developers to step in with no code and low code point solutions to enhance or construct new logic blocks, or new user interface blocks. 

The value of a composable future

Gartner concedes that there’s a demonstrable gap between what traditional, legacy PLM providers have been capable of and what products need to provide to meet the needs of modern customers. 

Let’s call it the product value gap.

Product companies using composable PLM systems are closing the gap. Suddenly they can focus on the new KPIs dictated by the market: revenue growth and customer satisfaction. They’re doing more than enhancing a traditional system—they’re busting into an entirely new category. 

These best-in-class companies will naturally move away from Product Lifecycle Management because it’s no longer sufficient. Product Value Management (PVM) is the emerging category that defines the true distinction between a composable software platform and its lagging competitors.

As Hess notes, composability “gives you a leg up on your competitors because they're not able to address their customers’ problems with a unique solution that fits their exact needs.” 

Propel was built on the composable architecture of Salesforce’s framework from day one—seven years ago. That’s a total of 10 years prior to Gartner’s prediction that by 2025, only 30% of its competitors will have caught up.

As Fullmore puts it, “Even if our competitors start building right now, today, we're still seven years of releases ahead and we're just going to continue to move forward. 

“As we simply maintain our pace, we’re destroying the competition because we’ve already delivered these features. And we're going to keep incrementally changing them and making our product better.”

Continuing our examination of the shortcomings of traditional PLM, we explore how its user experience leaves a lot to be desired in “Enterprise Software UX and PLM: Another Dropped Ball?”.

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Post by
Ray Hein
Founder & Board Member, Propel

Ray is a SaaS veteran with 20+ years of PLM, development and product launch experience in both hardware and enterprise software organizations. Ray has held multiple executive positions at companies such as Agile Software, Apttus, Vendavo and Centric Software.

Fun Fact: Ray volunteers about two weeks a year with organizations like the American Diabetes Association, Family Giving Tree and Second Harvest Food Bank.

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Ray Hein