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Reference architectures and guardrails: burden or opportunity for innovation?

Centralized command centers that use integrated clinical data to provide insights to health care professionals, E-health solutions that monitor patients 24/7 in their own homes, all care partners having access to the same patient data regardless of location: in the future healthcare will be organized more clearly around customer and patient needs. In order to create a more seamless experience for patients and healthcare professionals, and to co-create together with innovation partners, Philips aims to deliver integrated solutions that ‘join up the dots’ across the health continuum: suites of systems, federated data management, secure cloud hosting, remote access and interoperability. 

 

In order to create a more seamless experience for patients and healthcare professionals, and to co-create together with innovation partners, Philips aims to deliver integrated solutions that ‘join up the dots’ across the health continuum: suites of systems, federated data management, secure cloud hosting, remote access and interoperability. 

 

It is when we started building on the engaging perspective of these ecosystems of integrated solutions, that the need for a reference architecture became apparent. A reference architecture helps you to move from isolated diversity to connected uniformity. Although this approach can be perceived as a restriction by developers, we see that our reference architecture with a framework of shared rules, guidelines, APIs, data models and technology choices, enables us to innovate faster while putting the customer experience at the center of everything we do.

Our reference architecture enables us to innovate faster while putting the customer experience at the center of everything we do.

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Architecture as a foundation and enabler

 

I often compare my work with building a house. You always need a foundation, plumbing, heating and electricity. Basics that do not directly contribute to the attractiveness of a house but are essential to live comfortably. A reference architecture delivers precisely that. It enables developers to focus on customer needs: the living room, kitchen, bathroom, furniture etc. When you do not need to worry about fundamental elements like cloud hosting, security, privacy, data models and interoperability, you can dedicate your time on the added value for customers, clinicians and patients. With a solid foundation in place, you no longer need to build everything from scratch, resulting in less complications, faster development and lower investments. 

 

One of the great advantages I see in using a reference architecture and guardrails in development, is a unified user experience. Instead of bringing products and devices to our customers that each require their own manuals and staff training, we now deliver integrated solutions that have a more seamless interface and user experience. This improves usability and added value for our customers, resulting in ‘one driver license’ for all integrated solutions.

There is a vast health profit in the ability to combine many different data sources into a full overview of the status of a patient.

 

But a seamless user experience is more than look and feel. Another great advantage of a reference architecture is data sharing through standard data models. There is a vast health profit in the ability to combine many different data sources into a full overview of the status of a patient. Adherence to a standard data model allows us to share data between different departments, enabling patients to share their health data just once, instead of answering the same questions and getting the same tests and examinations over and over again when being referred from one doctor to the next. At the same time, this would also reduce the burden for the staff in time-consuming administrative data entries. Because access to combined data sources from many sensors and devices can enhance the accuracy of our Artificial Intelligence (AI) models whilst enabling new and innovative applications, such as the use of AI being able to predict if a patient in the ICU has an enhanced risk of developing heart problems.

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Working with more agility on all pieces of the puzzle

 

Agile development in autonomous teams with an end-to-end responsibility for a full capability or service is highly promoted as the most effective way of working. Reference architectures with strong development guardrails are often seen as being in conflict with the autonomy and flexibility of these agile teams. But, in my opinion, it is possible to work with greater agility within guardrails. Instead of starting from scratch, the agile development team starts from the building blocks and works within the guidelines of the reference architecture. However, the agility is now in meeting user needs rather than creating technical infrastructures. This approach works very well for development areas where many different customer needs can be supported by variations on a limited set of user interface and workflow building blocks. Developers will have the opportunity to work more closely with customers, with a continuous connection to see the impact they can make for the end-user. This is an exciting opportunity and a highly motivating outlook.

For this way of working we need people with various levels of experience, skill and focus.

Developing software is often seen as individual artwork and not as a craft performed in a customer focused “software factory”. However, for this way of working, we need people with various levels of experience, skill and focus. We need a smaller number of technology-focused people to provide the architecture, technology, foundation and plumbing and a larger number of customer-focused people who deliver the end value for our customers. Ultimately, this is so that we can deliver the experiences they expect - effortless and personal, with great outcomes. 

 

It is important to acknowledge that this reference architecture approach requires a mindset change in people working within innovation: from a technology focus to a customer focus. This clear definition of roles and capabilities of people and teams also brings opportunities for recruitment and career development in a sector where a global shortage of suitable employees with a combination of these skills is a significant issue worldwide. With the right combination of people and skills we can develop and deliver more effectively, with a shorter time to market, more predictable timings and at lower cost.

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Teamwork is a piece of art

 

I believe that Philips’ transformation into a digital healthcare technology company is grounded in its systematic transformation of software practices. Our HealthSuite Reference Architecture (HSRA) is the technical foundation of the digital transformation we are going through as a company. HSRA provides the building blocks of digital platforms, systems, governance, guidelines, interfaces and best practices that enable us and our partners’ development of integrated solutions, products, devices and systems. Our commitment to the Philips HSRA can be seen as perfect teamwork: instead of continuously re-inventing the wheel, we work together and elaborate on a firm basis with customer value and experience as our main focus. 

 

Developing and deploying a reference architecture, with an accompanying set of digital platforms to evolve a broad collection of systems and solutions, is a complex task that takes a considerable amount of effort and lead-time. A common pitfall is the usage of immature platforms in state-of-the-art innovation projects, which often results in these platforms becoming the bottleneck towards a fast time to market. Using a first-of-a-kind platform requires careful planning, dependency management and a collaborative approach to avoid frustrations in both the producers and consumers of these platforms. 

 

Thus, I am very proud of the recent ICMG ‘Best Digital Architecture in Healthcare’ award we received in November 2019. The jury mentioned that the hardest thing in the world is to understand the architecture of an enterprise but that Philips’ achievement is in delivering into many different hospital enterprises. The jurors praised the breadth and scope of HSRA and the structured way in which we have driven this as a truly company-wide initiative. I believe that it gives us the recognition that we have a high caliber architecture and increases our confidence in the technical foundation on which we develop our propositions.

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In the end it is all about people

 

Reference architectures, platforms and guardrails are often considered as a burden for truly creative innovation. But when developed and deployed in the right way, I’m convinced that they are a huge enabler for more customer focused innovation and partnerships, with a faster time to market. And as our great guru in IT architecture – John Zachman – states: “Architecture enables you to accommodate complexity and change. If you don’t have enterprise architecture, your enterprise is not going to be viable in an increasingly complex and changing external environment.” 

Architecture enables you to accommodate complexity and change.

 

As Philips, we are on this journey of transformation and can be proud of our successes so far. This is an ever-evolving journey, but that is what excites me the most. Because together we are shaping the future of healthcare, so that we can confront and conquer some of society’s most pressing challenges and be a crucible for inspiring, digital innovations. This will enable us to respond more directly to the ever-changing needs of our most important customers:

 

people.

 

I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are on this topic, so please let me know by responding to my blog on LinkedIn.


Jan van Zoest

Jan van Zoest

Senior Vice President, Chief Architect 

Jan van Zoest joined Philips in 1985, and has gained over 30 years of experience in defining, architecting and managing large software platforms for many businesses and solutions across Philips. 

 

In 2016, he became Chief Architect. In this role, he has global responsibility for the community of architects in defining the Philips HealthSuite Reference Architecture; a consistent, unified, company-wide approach to architecture and platform development, as the foundation for Philips to compete in the digital world of ecosystems, integrated solutions, modular systems, the Internet of Things, Platforms as a Service, cloud computing, software and hardware technologies, data management and artificial intelligence.

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