SOA will change how IT works

IT’s role needs to change to benefit from SOA, writes Todd McGregor managing director of Forrester Middle East.

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By  Todd McGregor Published  June 1, 2006

|~|McGregor,200.gif|~|Todd McGregor of Forrester Middle East.|~|Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is a style of design, deployment, and management of software infrastructure and applications to create a more flexible digital embodiment of your business. Characteristics of SOA include a standards-based environment, loosely coupled connections to ease change, shared services, and federated control.

SOA evolved as a solution for complex and inflexible application infrastructures; by managing standards, protocols, information delivery, and application integration, IT organisations found that they could save money and increase flexibility through reducing architecture complexity and duplication.

The flexibility provided by SOA enables the continuous optimisation of business processes. But the traditional IT organisation, oriented toward discrete business units and supported by vertically integrated applications, constrains this optimisation. To be effective, the IT organisation must develop an orientation around end-to-end business processes. A number of existing IT roles need to be redefined to ensure that this process orientation is reflected in IT's strategies and plans. Furthermore, the IT organisational structure itself should change to make these redefined roles effective and deliver service-oriented IT.

Many technologies have changed how IT is organised. For instance, the move from mainframe to client-server pushed IT to become less centralised and more supportive. SOA has the potential to change IT again. For SOA to provide value, it must facilitate business process optimisation: streamlining steps, improving coordination, and driving down costs.

The traditional IT organisation is structured around building and supporting vertically integrated, siloed applications. IT roles, responsibilities, skills, and budgets are focused on discrete projects addressing specific business activities - a focus that emphasises the view of IT as an order taker. These IT organisations will not be able to identify or work with their business partners to capitalise on opportunities that SOA provides

Application development projects are scoped with little recognition of common business functions, missing an enterprise perspective and the opportunity for optimal solutions. For example, one insurance company found itself simultaneously developing two new underwriting systems, neither of which was intended to replace two existing ones.
Firms continue to add code to aging applications as the quickest way to address immediate needs. So opportunities for radically improved support to business processes evaporate due to a lack of shared vision between IT and business areas. For example, the same insurance company spent millions of dollars to add functionality to a monolithic and inflexible customer service application developed in the early 1990s.

By focusing narrowly on individual projects, applications, and departmental needs, a premium is placed on existing application knowledge over a grasp of the business domain. So when a strategic contribution is needed, the value that IT can provide to its business partners is hamstrung. For example, an investment management firm found that it needed to bring in consultants to drive IT planning and analysis whenever the business sought radically new application capabilities; the IT organisation was viewed simply as support staff for the existing application portfolio.

IT must switch its emphasis from supporting departments and applications to playing a facilitative role in improving business operations. These initiatives range from process improvements, such as combining user job roles or eliminating steps in their workflow, to improving the functionality of IT services that a process uses to extending a process to business partners, including business process outsourcing. Key aspects of this re-orientation are process knowledge, scope, architecture influence, and vision.

What remains to be seen is whether Middle Eastern CIOs can engage the business in meaningful conversations on SOA benefits. This is a problem in the region for two major reasons. Firstly, SOA is yet another acronym based on a technology concept that many CIOs can not articulate to a non-IT person. Secondly, business will be very suspicious of what may appear to be another all consuming IT project that, on the surface, looks like an excuse to get more budget. This will certainly be the case for those CIOs who report into the CFO and who don't have active and regular dialogue with the lines of business.

We suggest developing an SOA strategy that encompasses quick wins with high visibility and where the value is easily perceived.

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