Once upon a time, companies built huge proprietary systems to track their customer information, content, accounting, business intelligence and every other business function you can name. These were expensive, monolithic systems that took years to implement and compatibility between systems was not a huge priority.

Usually the technology choices had a lot more to do with the needs of IT than the end users. Usability was actually far down the list of concerns. As such, people grew increasingly frustrated with these applications, which they had to grapple with on a daily basis just to do their jobs. Instead of technology easing the way for employees, it very often got in the way.

That all began to change about a decade ago when people discovered another way — first with Web 2.0 tools and later on their mobile phones and tablets. What they found was these elegant, simple applications in their browsers and on their smart phones. They were easy to install, configure and use — and they wanted the same thing at work.

Soon thereafter, the cloud began to enable employees to provision these better software packages themselves and so-called Shadow IT was born. Instead of going to IT and asking for resources, a process that could take weeks, users could sign onto a cloud service and provision software, servers, storage and even developer tools with a credit card.

As the cloud platforms matured, something remarkable happened. Instead of making it difficult to work together across products, interoperability became an imperative.

The Changing Face Of Business

Against this backdrop, something else was happening. Companies suddenly needed to move faster and to respond to customer needs much more quickly. That meant that these older, inflexible systems that were comfortable for IT were suddenly an albatross for businesses that needed to be more agile and make changes much more rapidly.

The answer was in the cloud and mobile platforms. When you could put together a bunch of sophisticated functionality into a single app in short order, you could build whatever you needed much more quickly than older tools would ever have allowed.

It was no longer acceptable to build inflexible and unresponsive systems that operated in silos or with complex connectors. It required companies to tear down their walls and work together, even when it might seem like it was against their best commercial interest to do so.

At the same time, people were shifting their attention to mobile devices. That meant that companies needed to provide apps for their employees to work beyond their cubicles wherever they happened to be. Customers were also demanding better tools and easier ways to interact with a vendor.

It became ever more crucial for these vendors to showcase compatibility with other companies because their customers were demanding it. It was no longer acceptable to build inflexible and unresponsive systems that operated in silos or with complex connectors. It required companies to tear down their walls and work together, even when it might seem like it was against their best commercial interest to do so.

The Microsoft-Salesforce Alliance

Nothing illustrates this better than the partnership between Microsoft and Salesforce. These companies once were fierce rivals suing one another in an atmosphere of great animosity just five or six years ago, but in 2014 something changed. Salesforce and Microsoft decided they would both benefit from working together instead of being at odds.

Last September, Satya Nadella appeared at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference and was interviewed on stage, something that would have been unthinkable in the days of his predecessor Steve Ballmer. Nadella recognized something his predecessors never did. The world was changing, and if Microsoft was to remain relevant it was essential that he start forging these types of strategic partnerships.

As he articulated at Dreamforce, “I don’t think of this as a zero sum [game] with any one competitor. We are going to compete vigorously in certain domains, but the total opportunity for us to take the power of digital technology and empower every person and every organization is so huge that these partnerships really only help amplify that.” Nadella said.

What he clearly understood was that the days of working in an operational vacuum were over. Customers were choosing the best solutions for a particular job. They were no longer blindly buying everything from a single vendor.

Coming Together

As though to further prove this point, last month Box announced a partnership with Salesforce in which Box content can appear directly in Salesforce, or developers using the Salesforce App Cloud to build custom apps can embed Box functions into their apps.

Then there’s IBM and Apple, which have forged a partnership to build enterprise mobile apps. The partnership completed its hundredth app last month, and Apple highlighted the partnership in its recent business website redesign.

These are but a few high-profile example, but companies are learning that working together is far more valuable than fighting one another. Surely each still wants to compete vigorously (as Nadella put it), make a profit and be an industry leader, but as consultant Greg Satell wrote in a recent Fortune article, Why The Ability To Collaborate Is The New Competitive Advantage, achieving those basic business goals requires a new way of thinking:

In the past, we could dominate by accumulating resources and driving efficiency, but now agility and interoperability that rule the day. We need to shift our focus from assets and capabilities to empathy, design and networked organizations.

That’s why it’s become increasingly imperative for these large organizations to find strategic partners and give their customers what they want — easy interoperability between systems. The cloud and mobile world were made for this kind of cooperation and many companies are learning collaboration is the way to increased business success.

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Partnerships And Interoperability Matter Most In Cloud-Mobile World