Making sense of SOA is no game

IBM wants to teach service-oriented architecture to the PlayStation generation. It may end up giving the game away

IBM is proud of Innov8, its zeitgeist-flavoured service-oriented architecture training tool. A three-dimensional virtual environment, it leads players by the pixelated hand through the sort of analysis and decisions that end up with an SOA solution to all your business-process management needs.

The idea that videogames are a good way to present business functions isn't new. Nobody's made it work yet, for the simple reason that the difficulties people have with work are rarely with the hows but much more commonly with the whats. A dull meeting with finance is a dull meeting with finance, whether you have it in a room with a bloke in a tie or floating in orbit off Arcturus IV with a giant fluorescent squid.

But there are aspects of business that videogame environments can help. Mostly, they're called people. In real life as a manager, an employee or both, the problems are rarely with things or actions, they're with communications, with perceptions and persuasion. A virtual environment can uncouple the personal from the practical: you can try something out and, based on the result, try again and see if you can do it better. That's much more difficult in real life.

The fact that IBM is trying to teach people about SOA and BPM using virtual realities is indicative not of the brilliance of this as a training approach, but of the peculiarly amorphous nature of the subject matter. People do find it difficult to understand SOA because it is a marketing ethos masquerading as a technical methodology. There is little in SOA that is new, controversial or very hard — if you doubt that, try thinking of alternative ways to structure business systems. The trouble is in understanding why some laudable technologies and techniques need to be dignified with an overarching philosophy. They don't, and inventing a playful environment ostensibly to explain why will only emphasise that. SOA is a convenient sticker that sells products and services to the executive layer — and it's no coincidence that this layer is peopled increasingly by the videogame generation.

IBM would do better in using its resources to create virtual environments that tackle the really hard aspects of business life: teamwork, engaging with markets, understanding risk and managing resources. By priming the game so the right answer is always "SOA", all the company is doing is underlining the one big dangerous myth that solution X is good enough for problem Y, regardless of what problem Y actually is. But then, you're more likely to find a giant fluorescent squid running the finance department than a services company that admits its products aren't quite what you need. Some business sectors have been running in their own virtual realities since the invention of the computer.


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