SOA is ultimately about the customer, whoever that may be

SOA brings a lumbering telecom giant closer to its customers -- not an easy task at a company built around products

In this blog, we have often talked about the differences between Big SOA and Start-Small SOA. For most organizations, a start-small approach seems to make the most sense, as SOA will take time to percolate up the enterprise, and begin to change the way parts of the business interact with each other.

SOA brings a lumbering telecom giant closer to its customers -- not an easy task at a company built around products

Big SOA, on the other hand, demands an enterprise-wide approach, and loads of executive support and business sign-on. But if successful, SOA can be a tremendous catalyst for business transformation.

Of course, the ultimate goal of any SOA effort needs to be the customer. That may be an internal customer, such as the HR department, or the external customers that buy products and services.

The current poster child of good Big SOA is BT (formerly British Telecom). The telecom giant has recently undergone a remarkable transformation from a product-centric culture to a customer-oriented culture, thanks in large part to SOA.

I heard George Glass, chief architect for BT, talk about his company's three-year-old SOA program at the last May's InfoWorld SOA Executive Forum. As a result of the SOA, BT had been able to close down close to 800 systems, and plans to close down another 700 to 900 systems over the coming 12 months, Glass said.

Even more important than the system consolidation has been the change in organizational philosophy BT undertook as part of the SOA. Glass said that to build acceptance for SOA, proponents needed to "show the benefits to business partners in dollars and cents." We established a "completely new way of working at BT -- always start with the customer experience. We're using SOA to build a customer oriented architecture."

BT's SOA proponents have been able to evolve the company's focus from maintaining operations to concentrating on the customer experience, he explained. Now, even BT's CEO is talking about services such as order to cash. "The language of the IT department has now percolated right up through the business," he said.

BT intends to be fully SOA enabled by 2009, Glass said. BT's SOA deployment now covers up to 3,500 core systems, built on 14 platforms.

To keep IT on track, BT also has tied carrots and sticks to the use of standards and shareable services in new applications, Glass added. If members of the IT department pass the implementation test in line with SOA, they earn a bonus in advance. However, "every time IT deviates against the architecture, they lose a quarter of their annual bonus," he said.

When fully complete, the transition will make it much easier for BT to build and introduce new products and services for customers by reusing common components – say, customer identification and revenue collection – allowing BT to focus development resources just on new functionality, Glass said.

Glass recently provided more details on BT's emerging customer-centric focus in a chat with InformationWeek's Charles Babcock, posted here. Glass and others at BT recognized that BT had to move away from what was essentially a product-oriented software architecture -- home phone service, business phone service, etc. -- to a customer-focused one. "We needed customer-centric systems. We needed an order-entry system for all customers, a billing system, a provisioning system."

The goal of BT's SOA was the establishment of general-purpose services that could be invoked in the sale of different products while consolidating its large stable of legacy systems. In BT's case, these services had to be well-planned, designed with the enterprise in mind. "It's easy to come up with a billing service, but will it be able to handle the 500,000 bills that need to be composed every night by BT's billing system?" Glass is quoted as saying. "You can predict what the level of performance will be. You can design the service with that in mind."

And, most importantly, designed with customers in mind, Glass says -- everything SOA begins with BT's customer experience team. For any proposed service, the main consideration was how both current and future customers would need to interact with the service. As Glass put it: "It defined what the customer experience should be," versus delivering it as an afterthought.

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