If you've worked for a variety of companies over the years (and most of us have), you can use hindsight to compare and contrast the way these firms are organized. Some are highly decentralized, and decisions are left at the divisional or departmental level. The corporation acts to guide and coordinate -- but not operate -- the units.
Other companies have stricter command-and-control structures and business units are expected to be on the same page, all the time. The units look above for both strategic and operational guidance. Centralization requires these corporations to work at scale, leveraging common approaches and resources -- and reuse and repetition serve them well.
Still, other cultures are jumbles of styles. Some aspects of the business, such as procurement, are centralized, while others, such as marketing, are not.
This variety of corporate cultures and management styles is often beneficial -- especially as companies set out to accomplish different things, depending on their maturity, their competitive position and the markets they serve. Personalities can play a huge role. You can often draw direct lines from a leader's personal style and the corporate culture that emerges.
So while myriad company styles are -- by design or fiat -- necessary, information technology (IT) culture has demonstrated far less plasticity. It's not that IT can't produce a wide variety of services and outcomes, for it certainly can. It's that the cultural choices for IT have been limited by the need to conform to the technology's limits, complexity and cost.
Historically, IT managers just haven't had as many options through which to establish a desired or intended culture. Many times, the technology dictates the culture, which has often consisted of firefighting between rushed projects and amid tight budgets.
Even when IT managers do exert heroic influence over events, it seems as if IT is on a cultural pendulum, swinging from decentralized to centralized and back again, depending on the latest IT initiative or computing wave. For example, when the Web came along some 10 years ago, companies tended to embrace it in a decentralized way, and then made it more centrally procured and managed. Same with client-server systems before that. And minis before that. It's been a seesaw.
This means that in a large portion of companies, IT and business have been culturally out of synch for the most part. Those that are consistently successful at aligning business and IT styles and priorities have done so only by making it a very high priority, and by spending a lot of time and money to attain and preserve alignment.
Into this confused environment we now drop Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA)
, as the "next big thing." Will SOA help or hinder the alignment of business and IT? This is an essential question, and may help determine how successful SOA will be.
There's room for optimism, in part because SOA isn't a technology, but a conceptual approach to computing, people and process. Theoretically, a corporation's business culture can benefit from absorbing SOA principles. By moving toward applications and data services that can be orchestrated and adjusted more freely, and are not brittle in their association with underlying platforms and integration interdependencies, executives can foster better alignment between business and IT.
For example, SOA may be highly advantageous to a command-and-control culture. It can promote more unified IT methods, with high reuse and standardized and repeatable ways to assemble and provide services, perhaps under a corporate-wide IT management approach.
A corporate culture that values department-level operational independence and innovation can also benefit from SOA. Core services can be made available to units, or they can acquire them and create processes geared toward their needs.
And SOA could be exploited to let hybrid business cultures access and leverage IT on their terms -- central and controlled for some business services and processes, and more locally instigated and defined for others. (This benefit will come in handy, too, with mergers and acquisitions, where merging cultures is often one of the hardest things to do.)
While this theoretical set of SOA cultural-affinity benefits has not yet been proven in widespread use, it strikes me as a significant improvement on the seesaw of IT adoption and management that we've seen in previous waves of computing.
One of the keys to begin the SOA-as-IT-culture-agility-mechanism benefit is for companies to actually know themselves, to ascertain both within businesses and IT just what kind or kinds of culture they are. By determining their flavor of organizational management, and by determining how synched or out-of-phase their IT department is, they can go a long way toward evaluating whether SOA could help, and where to direct SOA's benefits.
Are your company's IT and business cultures in synch? Could SOA better align the IT culture to the business?