Organizing for SOA

On the Yahoo SOA group, there’s been a long conversation going on regarding (among other things) whether or processes operate at a higher level of abstraction than services which inevitably leads to a BPM first or SOA first debate. For the record, I don’t think that a process-centric approach necessarily leads to success. I made the point that I’ve seen first hand where a process-based viewpoint did nothing more than turn the silos 90 degrees. That is, where we previously had some capability locked away inside an application and only of value to that application, we now have the same capability locked away in a process, and only of value to that process. Both situations can be problematic. A service-centric approach, however, where we focus on a business capability and build outward focusing on consumption, seems to represent that “middle-out” approach.

Anyway, to get to the point of the post, a comment that both I and Anne Thomas Manes of the Burton Group made is that we’ve seen very few (in my case none) organizations that are structured around this notion of capabilities. Rob Eamon, a frequent commenter on this blog, replied to one of Anne’s messages (where she suggested that IT organize around capabilities) with this:

What does this really look like? Does the business organization line up in any way with the capabilities? What is the interaction between those responsible for business and those responsible for IT? Does business group A accept that “capability group X” has responsibility for business groups A, B, C, M, and N? So before capability X can be extended or changed, coordination is needed with all of them? Or is there a proliferation of different interfaces for X? …To paraphrase an old, old Byte magazine humor piece (, we have little information about hunting the elephants but lots and lots about packing the jeep.

I thought Rob’s message was great, and one that we should all think about. SOA isn’t a panacea for all things wrong in IT, and even more importantly, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. That being said, there’s also a lot of “well, we’ve been doing it this way for 20 years and nothing has fallen apart yet” mentality as well, and the right answer certainly lies somewhere in the middle.

Getting back to Rob’s message, he presents a scenario where 5 business groups all need a common capability. If this is the case, the question is how is that being handled today, and is it a problem? If all 5 groups have their own implementation of that capability, is that an issue or not? If the current organization handles that dependency fine, and the current path is in alignment with the long term strategy, why change anything? If it’s not in alignment with the long term strategy, then you have justification to change. The real disaster is when we don’t even know that those common capabilities exist. Then, you don’t even know whether you have a problem or not, and by the time you figure it out, you now lack the time to get it fixed. This is the situation where I think most organizations are. They’ve read the press and think SOA has potential. They know that there is room for improvement in the IT/Business relationship. Beyond that point, it gets really fuzzy. An integration-centric approach to SOA has some legs, but that really lives in the IT space and produces incremental gains, at best. Any other approach really requires some analysis of the business and the information technology that supports it to determine whether there’s value to be obtained or not. Unless someone has that view, it’s hard to say whether enterprise SOA will provide significant value or not. I’d go so far to say that it’s difficult to say whether anything of a strategic nature will provide significant value or not.

So, the question remains, how do you organize for SOA? Clearly, there’s no one answer. As many, many people have said, it has to start with the business and the things it’s trying to do. As Rob suggested in his message, simply changing the structure of IT may not be enough. If the business side hasn’t recognized that there are benefits to leveraging shared services, then anything IT does along those business capabilities may not help. Sure, there are some things that can be done strictly within IT, but those have more to do with the business of IT, than the true business. Any change in organization has to make sense for the business objectives, however. Take sales and marketing as an example. There are plenty of organizations that have shared sales and marketing, and plenty of organizations that have separate sales and marketing organizations along some other dimension. I think the same thing will likely hold true for organizing around SOA. Where the business needs dictate shared business capabilities, you adjust the organization, both business and IT. Where the business needs don’t, efforts to push SOA may run into resistance. If the business lacks the necessary domain knowledge to know where SOA can fit and where it may not, then it really doesn’t matter what structure you pick, it’s going to be a struggle.

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