While we’ve been hearing about the benefits of reuse, productivity and cost savings that are derived from a service-oriented architecture (SOA) strategy, another area to consider is SOA’s ability to help close communication gaps in an organization. Whether your company is small and you must monitor all activities or it’s large and all the business processes are in lock step, you are still inevitably facing communication gaps that can impact your bottom line on a daily basis.


These gaps span both the business and IT aspects of an organization and make themselves most noticeable during times of change, such as a merger, the introduction of a new enterprise application or the continued reliance on a patched or broken process. The result is a communications breakdown that creates pain points for teams, departments, divisions, customers and partners.


SOA can help proactively address gaps so that time and resources don’t fall between the cracks. To fully understand the value that SOA can deliver for bridging those gaps, take a closer look at the challenges hindering the adoption of SOA.


The first challenge is the lack of a clear understanding of what SOA means and what it can do for the organization. The second is the cost justification, especially as budgets get tighter in this contracting economy. The third factor arises from the lack of skilled architects and developers who are fluent in SOA.


What SOA Means


There have been many healthy discussions about the true definition of SOA, but the industry still struggles to agree on a clear, concise and consistent definition. Essentially, SOA enables a company to align technology with its business goals. SOA is not new. It is an evolution in technology sparked by the growing demand to eliminate the silos that existed primarily as a result of the proliferation of proprietary applications. In the mid 90s, interest in enterprise application integration (EAI) surged as companies realized that the ability to take fully advantage of business opportunities afforded by the Web were only possible when the information trapped in silos was shared.


A true SOA infrastructure goes beyond enterprise applications. Through a standards-based architecture, SOA allows companies to harvest information and deliver it to the right person at the right time so they can make critical business decisions without having to be tethered to a specific platform, application or other constraint defined by the infrastructure.


While experts discuss and debate the right words to insert alongside the dictionary definition of SOA, perhaps it’s best to illustrate what SOA does in order to define its importance to an organization.


SOA Links Data


For example, consider the case study of an electric cooperative. Like most utilities over the years, it has added various propriety, homegrown and legacy applications to manage its call centers, dispatching of road crews, town maps, power line locations and other operations.


Before the SOA era, these disparate sources of information could not easily “talk” to one another without a lengthy and expensive integration project. Today, through an SOA infrastructure, the electric cooperative can simply accommodate an onslaught of customer calls, even during a major storm. SOA enables the cooperative to equip the call center with mapping data and make the information available to road crews that can quickly and efficiently identify the most urgent areas. In some instances, this includes the immediate dispatch of a crew to fix a downed power line strewn across a busy intersection.


SOA for Compliance


One of the buzzwords in health care these days is compliance. Hospitals, municipal agencies and medical practice groups all face regulations such as Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).


SOA plays a role here too, as a large city health agency recently discovered. The agency needed to integrate patient data and city health statistics and a create a system for collecting and disseminating vital information, all while adhering to regulatory compliance mandates. By putting an SOA environment in place, the agency is able to share information across departments in real time.


SOA in Finance


In another example, an SOA environment helped a global financial institution prevent and detect suspicious activity by verifying the identity of customers and applying enhanced due diligence. Without the architecture, managing and cross referencing the volume of data spanning government records, customer information and the bank’s own databases could prove to be an overwhelming and resource draining task.


SOA has the ability to bridge communication gaps among teams and technology. It also demonstrates that the underlying infrastructure needs to support business operations. Companies that have begun their SOA journey are on a course for success, especially as challenges in the economy persist and industries prepare for dramatic changes.


The SOA imperative is driven in large part by the rise of enterprise Web 2.0. While the 2.0 moniker is often linked to the application interface, the reality is that without a strong architecture Web 2.0 efforts will fall short. Simply limiting integration efforts to creating a slick Web 2.0 environment could result in a security nightmare where bad information or software code is shared throughout the company and beyond.


What SOA Promises to Do


If an SOA project is stalled or has been put on the back burner due to recent shifts in budget, you can challenge the situation by clearly outlining the top benefits of an SOA strategy from both an IT and business perspective. Through each organization that has realized success through an SOA strategy could easily point to many more business and IT benefits, the most common the justifications for SOA follow:

  • IT Benefits from SOA
    • Dissolves silos created by proprietary applications, resulting in time and cost savings associated with maintenance, licensing, upgrades, etc. and decreased reliance on IT for tactical issues.
    • Reduces the time previously allocated to large-scale integration efforts. By using Web services as a key element to building SOA, developers and architects can reuse proven best practices throughout the company.
    • Sets the foundation to easily and cost effectively introduce significant IT efforts. With the right architecture in place, a company is in a better position to adopt new technologies and approaches such as Web 2.0, master data management and business process management.
  • Business Benefits from SOA
    • Supports merger and acquisition activities by allowing the integration of people, process and information in a more timely and cost-efficient manner.
    • Delivers cost savings by streamlining IT efforts to increase overall organizational productivity.
    • Future-proofs your organization. By creating a flexible infrastructure, organizations can quickly and easily respond to changing market conditions as well as internal shifts.

The SOA Skills Gap


Despite SOA benefits, adoption is still stalled in some companies. Both business and IT leaders point to the lack of IT skills as the main hindrance. There are many classes, workshops and certifications available to address this issue, but in many instances, IT will cite the “just do it” approach as the best path to building an SOA. This mindset promotes learning along the way, because SOA is still very much a groundbreaking experience. If this sounds too daunting, there is a middle ground.

As you plan your SOA, keep the following three critical elements in mind:

  1. Map out the strategy. Blueprint the SOA with input from leaders across the company before any IT changes are made. With the right people in place at the outset, it will be easier to identify potential potholes on the path before the project begins.
  2. Test. Start with a small project for a team and put it through its paces in a phased approach so that any kinks are worked out before the Web service or best practice is deployed and reused.
  3. Outsource the parts of the project that can’t be conquered internally. Work with skilled consultants that have extensive experience with SOA. It will give you third-party insight, help minimize costly trial and error efforts and strengthen your team’s knowledge.

Getting the Company on Board


To close the communication gaps through SOA, you have to ensure that key people are on board with the strategy. Without the support of at least one C-level executive, the SOA can become relegated to the status of skunk works as opposed to a strategic initiative. Getting the right players to buy into SOA early on will help cultivate a culture that embraces change and will realize the benefits of a service oriented approach more quickly. The top five ways to help your organization embrace SOA and ensure its success are:

  1. Understand that SOA is a strategic direction. While IT will be driving much of its creation, the company must realize that SOA is a strategy that will benefit the entire organization.
  2. Do it in public. Tell people about the project by communicating how SOA will help them be more successful in their jobs. Use the language appropriate to the person you’re engaging (IT to IT versus IT to business).
  3. Provide educational forums. Set up brown bag lunch sessions to informally share insight and get feedback on the company’s new direction.
  4. Benchmark results. Make sure you consistently track and report progress at each milestone. This will help document efforts, share them with colleagues and potentially lay the groundwork for additional funding.
  5. Share lessons learned. Acknowledge that SOA is a journey and it may have bumps along the road. Lessons learned can help other teams in your company as well as the industry as a whole.

As you can see, SOA can help bridge communication gaps that impact every facet of an organization ranging from the business leaders and IT staff to the technology underpinnings that keep the company’s engines running on a daily basis.

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