Are SOA 'centers of excellence' luxuries or necessities?

SOA centers of excellence may not be for everyone, or work everywhere

The headline for a recent InfoQ article exclaims, "Are SOA Centers of Excellence Really Necessary?" Wow, talk about heresy to even ask this question. Sort of on the level of, "Is Education Really Necessary?"

Not to fear. The article's author, Jean-Jacques Dubray, drawing on a recent panel discussion sponsored by the SOA Consortium, ends up reaffirming the role of CoEs (or, alternatively, SOA Competency Centers) in SOA-building. (Access to a podcast on this topic here.)

However, CoEs aren't for everyone, and may not work everywhere. The challenge, as relayed by Bruce Henderson, is that the skills that make CoEs work -- vision, political savvy, and communication -- "are rare."

The notion of "centers of excellence" or "competency centers" to better manage newer IT initiatives such as SOA is one that has been proposed by consultants and analysts for some time now. Not only does such a body help kick-start SOA efforts in the business, but it's also a way to keep such efforts above organizational politics and fiefdoms. The SOA effort can proceed without being encumbered by individual department or management agendas.

It's a given that large government organizations and Fortune1,000 companies with multi-million-dollar technology and implementation budgets can set aside resources to field CoEs. Plus, there's a need for standardization of processes and best practices across diverse organizations with lots of divisions and branches. However, such efforts have been slow to evolve, and may be difficult for smaller to medium-size businesses to get in place.

I recently worked with ebizQ to develop a survey on SOA governance practices, conducted in partnership with SAP, found that nine percent of respondents had established some form of competency center/center of excellence to promote and keep SOA efforts on the right track. Only six percent of the smaller companies (less than $25 million a year in revenues) had CoEs, versus 23% of the larger companies (more than $1 billion). (A Webinar on the survey results can be viewed here.)

There are views that CoEs are even more essential for smaller companies. Mike Kavis, for one, sees CoEs as an important tool for for small and medium sized businesses that can't afford to get bogged down in process. As he put it:

"Unlike large enterprises, we don't have the luxury of dedicating several full time employees to enforcing processes and procedures. Instead, we must put a solid framework in place and rely on our people to enforce the necessary processes. Setting up a SOA Center of Excellence and an IT Steering committee under the watchful eye of a strong executive sponsor (CIO, Chief Architect, etc.) is one way to approach it." 

The SOA Consortium panel concluded that a CoE acts as an "accelerator," Dubray relates. "It is not essential to have one, however if you are talking about transformational and modernization, you need one. A CoE concentrates the skills that are required to deliver a successful SOA. In many ways, it is a corollary to a PMO or an Architecture practice....   You need to make sure that all the moving parts are moving the same direction."