Are we shorting SOA?

The economy will have its ups and downs, but SOA needs to be more than a tactical move for the downsides

Are we shorting SOA?

We here in the blogosphere and punditocracy have been talking a lot lately about the need to reshift SOA priorities to help batten down corporate IT costs against the economic downturn. (I've had a few posts of my own along these lines.) We're making calls to focus SOA on short-term wins and cost-containment measures. And, certainly, SOA plays a role in cost cutting, streamlining, extending existing assets, and consolidation.

SOA is more than just cost-cutting during the downsides

But in doing so, are we sending SOA down the wrong path at the wrong time? This is no time to abandon a compelling long-term vision in the name of short-term cutbacks.

SOA is a long-term vision and roadmap, and the actions we undertake today lay the groundwork for three to five years from now. The economy will get back and track and begin growing again in all likelihood, sometime in 2009. Companies will begin expanding their vistas once more, and begin moving into new areas of opportunities.

SOA is not just a short-term cost-cutting strategy. But even through the good times, that's been one of the issues that has been holding SOA back. To date, SOA has been largely confined to IT optimization projects, and remains there. The examples we have been seeing over the past three years have focused on replacing overtaxed legacy systems and reducing redundancies in enterprises. This is all good stuff, but falls far short of the potential SOA can deliver to the business.

SOA should be a business-led initiative, delivering business results -- and spectacular business innovation. This is the next phase of SOA growth. The companies that embrace SOA with this long-term vision will be the first ones out the gate as the economy regains its footing. The downturns of 1982, 1991, and 2001 all ended relatively quickly, and the companies that were quaking in their bunkers in fear found they weren't in a prime position to ride the growth curves that followed -- and missed opportunities to quickly seize market share.

One of the best examples I've heard for employing service-oriented techniques to transform the business in a long-term way is at BT. The telecom giant underwent a remarkable transformation from a product-centric culture to a customer-oriented culture, thanks in large part to SOA.

There was a cost-cutting and consolidation aspect to the effort. 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, according to George Glass, chief architect for BT.

Even more important than the system consolidation has been the change in organizational philosophy BT undertook as part of the SOA. Glass said the SOA helped establish 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 had been able to evolve the company’s focus from maintaining operations to concentrating on the customer experience, he explained. Glass said that 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.

Yes, BT has not been immune from the global financial turmoil, having just announced a round of cutbacks in its workforce. But with SOA linked to the business in growth mode, they ought to be quick on the rebound. Without SOA, they may have found themselves mired in product silos, and perhaps somewhat paralyzed long after the economic turbulence subsided. At least they now have the promise of greater agility, and more responsiveness to the market.  And, as the economy picks up steam again, BT faces very, very, very aggressive competitors in the telecom space, and it will need to stay a step ahead. SOA has helped them position for this next phase.

Along the lines of the role of economics in technology shifts, Charlie Bess at EDS recently pondered whether economic downturns and dislocations have a greater role in driving technology choices than we realize. He's probably on to something very interesting, because the main function of technology is clearly to automate processes and introduce as much new productivity as possible.

To reference the telecom sector again, there's an analogy I heard a few years back that if the telephone company (Bell and AT&T at the time) didn't have automation for its switchboard operations throughout the 20th century, they would have by now needed an operator workforce equivalent to the size of the population of the United States to keep the phone system running.

The lesson there is that ultimately the drive for increasing productivity -- to be more productive and more willing to innovate than the competition -- is probably ultimately the greatest influence over our technology choices. Yes, this drives efficiency and cost-cutting in the short term, but it is even more so part of a long-term vision, one that SOA needs to be constantly addressing. The ability to accomplish a lot more with less through innovative approaches to technology and management will keep a company in the lead -- no matter what the state of the economy.