Ready for SOA? Here's a litmus test

The most important part of a healthy SOA lifestyle is an organization built on trust

Smash the hierarchy. Encourage teamwork. Push decision making down to the front lines. Give employees autonomy and ownership of problems and solutions. And, most of all, trust, trust, trust.

Todd Biske and I are on the same page when it comes to questioning how much of role SOA can really play in corporate success, and how it can be measured. As I observed in a recent podcast with Elizabeth Book and Anne Thomas Manes, "the companies that are good with SOA are likely to be companies that have forward-thinking management and are good at everything else, as well. The organizations that really could use SOA, that need that flexibility and agility, are the ones not likely to be adopting SOA."

The most important part of a healthy SOA lifestyle is an organization built on trust

Todd provided some more insights on this line of thinking, noting that there's always "a certain class of organization that are the leaders that have a high percentage of success at whatever they do."

We've all heard the tremendous success stories (usually publicized by vendors) among excellent companies that have extended their best practices and adroit management practices to the SOA realm. The CIOs, architects, and managers that led these successfully SOA efforts had something in common -- they went for it, and weren't afraid to risk failure, because they knew their managers were backing them up, no matter what the outcome.

But how many stories out there look at struggling or relatively mediocre organizations that have been able to turn their fortunes around with SOA? Todd calls this group the "middle class" that isn't likely to embrace SOA in a big way, with plenty of finger-pointing and blame to go around -- especially directed at IT -- when things go wrong:

"What we’d like to see is that middle class of organizations merely trailing the leaders, but still eventually achieving success. Instead, we’re at risk of seeing the 'haves' and the 'have nots.' Anne [Thomas Manes] calls out that Service Averse Architecture is the status quo, and that’s a shame. As long as it continues to be the status quo, we’re not going to progress as an industry, and if anything, it fuels the fire of those that question the relevance of IT. After all, if businesses continue to thrive despite having continued dissatisfaction with IT support, then is IT really a differentiator worth investing in, or is it simply a necessary cost center where the focus should be on driving costs down to rock bottom levels? I believe IT can be a differentiator, but like Anne, I do believe it’s a very select few who are able to do so."

James McGovern picked up on Todd's post, asking if Todd and I "would define a litmus test so that others can characterize their own enterprise in terms of the management team."

Todd responded that one important test of forward-thinking management is trust. In an organization that fosters trust among its employees, "there is more collaboration than competition, and people all understand that everyone in the organization has the best interests of the organization as a whole in mind, not the best interests of themselves, their team, or their manager." As Todd so astutely puts it:

"SOA will create more moving parts associated with the delivery of IT solutions. More moving parts means more ownership and hence, more interaction among teams. If we don’t trust each other, the chances of success are greatly reduced. That being said, trust must be earned and maintained, it can not be established by edict. Service providers must do all they can to build trust. Management must ensure that the organization takes an 'innocent until proven guilty' approach, rather than the opposite, with actions that back it up."

I agree completely, and in fact have heard that service development and deployment -- governance -- is essentially a trust exercise. Consumers of services trust that the service has been built to standards, is scalable, will always be available when needed, and has been thoroughly tested. Service publishers trust that their efforts will be supported -- both politically and financially -- by other units in the enterprise that take advantage of the services.

But the trust doesn't begin at the publisher-consumer transactions -- it needs to have already been ingrained within the corporate culture. As Todd points out, the best-in-class companies encourage management to work "with the individuals in the trenches to help them understand what levels of risk the organization will tolerate and what the boundaries for innovation are within each group in the organization (essentially around roles and responsibilities)."

Todd concludes, picking up on Anne's point that SOA is a lifestyle, not a quick fix. "You need to be committed to everything that [SOA] may entail, rather than only doing it where it is convenient. We have to recognize that to make things better for the business, things have to change. If we’re only implementing minor changes, we can only expect minor successes."

And a key part -- perhaps the most important part -- of a healthy SOA lifestyle is an organization built on trust. Trust that the employees working day to day in the business can make their own decisions, and take full ownership of problems and solutions -- and be allowed to fail without fear of repercussions. This is the ingredient that will help SOA -- and the organization -- thrive.