Beyond the hype

The promise of Web services will not be realized until we surmount both organizational and technical hurdles, argues Harvard Business School associate professor Andrew P. McAfee.

The promise of Web services will not be realized until we surmount both organizational and technical hurdles, argues Harvard Business School associate professor Andrew P. McAfee. At present, he believes "the hype is unrealistic." 

The technical problem, he explains, is that "any two applications are virtually guaranteed to contain dissimilar data and execute dissimilar business processes. One might store dates as DD/MM/YYYY and put the date first in the purchase orders it sends out; the other might store dates in the MM/DD/YYYY format and expect the date to be the first field in any electronic purchase order it receives. Before any systems integration can take place, these dissimilarities need to be resolved. There is no magic bullet in the Web services toolkit that does this automatically or quickly."

The organizational hurdle, by contrast, "comes as all stakeholders get together and hammer out common definitions. This might not seem like the kind of work that leads to disputes, but it is."

It raises all sorts of difficult and debatable questions. Among them: Who's got the real customer contact information? Who gets to access it? Who gets to update it? What's the last day for bookings in each quarter? Is it the same all around the world? Do we have to do a credit check before scheduling every order for production? Who gets to certify approved vendors? What's the process for adding a vendor to the list?

Web services "work equally well within and between companies," he adds. "Cross-company implementations, however, are still comparatively rare. We see them between large and technically sophisticated organizations who have longstanding ties, and we're also starting to see them between big companies and their smaller suppliers."

What companies are doing well? Big companies. They have "the power to convince or compel their partners to participate, and to shortcut negotiations by simply dictating terms. Amazon and eBay have both done brilliant work with Web services to open up their IT infrastructures and let thousands of small sellers plug into them, but it's a 'take it or leave it' proposition. Amazon and eBay don't renegotiate Web services standards with each seller; they simply publish their standards and wait for other companies to adopt them."

At this point, Web services "are being used to automate simple business processes. So far Web services are being used to automate simple business processes —transmitting an order, acknowledging a shipment, describing an item for sale, etc. Over time the processes enabled via Web services will become more complex, but it's best to start small and build incrementally."