Harvard Business Review (HBR), June 2008, has a wonderful article (by Ric Merrifield, Jack Calhoun, and Dennis Stevens) on how SOA is “the next revolution in productivity.”
“It is becoming possible to design many business activities as Lego-like software components that can be easily put together and taken apart…service-oriented architecture [is] a relatively new way of designing and deploying the software that supports a business activity.”
With SOA, business activities can be accessed via the Internet through web services. Rather than build proprietary, redundant business services, our organizations can re-use standardized services, developed internally or outsourced, as components that plug and play into our enterprise.
“Virtually all large companies suffer from an enormous duplication of activities; they continue to create and perform hundreds of non-core tasks that would ideally be outsourced; and they are spending exorbitant amounts on IT projects in order to support redundant and nonstrategic operations and to update core processes.”
How does this differ from other quality improvement initiatives?
Prior quality improvement efforts like Total Quality Management (TQM) and Six Sigma have focused on reducing waste and defects and eliminating unnecessary tasks and integrating disparate ones.
“For the most part, however, reengineering has involved recasting processes and the information systems that support them in a proprietary, rather than a standardized, form—that is, customized for individual organizations. Such designs make it difficult and expensive for business to share, consolidate, and change processes.”
Now with the Internet and web services, we can access standardized services that can be shared and re-used throughout disparate business units in the same enterprise and across organizations globally.
The result is business units and organizations that can simply plug and play to make use of needed services, eliminating proprietary processes and redundant systems and enabling outsourcing of noncore mission functions and activities and easier upgrades to new superior services as they come online.
What are some of the issues holding SOA back?
Firstly, many people do not truly understand SOA, what it is, what benefits are possible, and what the challenges are to doing it right.
Second, SOA is viewed by many executives as yet another hype or bubble that will cost the enterprise lots of money, but fail to provide the promised return. So, they are wading into SOA only enough to “deploy it in a limited fashion,” but without first rethinking the design of their business.” However, to really reap the benefits of SOA, organizations need to transform from “collections of proprietary operations into a collection of standard plug-and-play activities,” and this requires redesigning not only IT systems, but operations.
In designing SOA-based processes, the unit of analysis and reengineering is no longer the task (as in Frederick Taylor time and motion studies of the late nineteenth century) or the department, or even the division. “In the age of the Internet and SOA, the unit of analysis is not a company’s way of conducting its operations at all; it is the primary purpose or desired outcome of each activity no matter how that activity is accomplished.”
Where are we today with SOA implementation?
“Unfortunately, few companies are using SOA to create more productive and focused organizations or to slash costs by purging duplicative operations and technologies. They are not revisiting the fundamental design of their operations.”
To overcome the obstacles in reaching SOA enabled organizations, we need a strong dose of enterprise architecture to identify and decompose our performance outcomes we are driving toward, the business processes to achieve these, the information required to perform these, and the systems that can serve them up.
According to HBR, our business model activities can be categorized into the following for SOA implementation:
- Primary (I would call this core mission)—those that should be kept in-house and are “top priority of programs to improve operations and technology” (i.e. through business process improvement, reengineering, and the introduction of new technology).
- Shared—those that “can be shared with other divisions” (i.e. through common solutions).
- Shifted—those that “can be transferred to customers, suppliers, or operational specialists” (i.e. outsourced).
- Automated—those that can be “automated so they can be turned into web services.”
All but the primary activities are ripe for SOA-based enhancements. And according to HBR, only about 20% of activities are primary, so that leaves plenty of room for a SOA plug-and-play.
The idea is to cease defining our noncore mission processes and activities as proprietary, requiring elaborate and expensive customized solutions for these. Instead, we should use standardized “swapped, bought, or sold” services. Then, we can truly focus our business process reengineering and IT investments on our organization’s core mission activities—working to to differentiate ourselves and develop unsurpassed competitive advantage.