Business Empowerment: The Underappreciated SOA Business Benefit

ZapThink has long grouped the core business benefits of Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) into four main categories: cost reduction, increased asset reuse, increased business visibility, and greater business agility. To be sure, most SOA efforts today seek to achieve one or more of these goals, and yet, there is one additional benefit that SOA provides organizations that is fast becoming one of the most important: business empowerment. The concept of business empowerment begins where the notion of user empowerment leaves off, focusing more on teams of people within lines of business and how technology both directly and indirectly gives them the capabilities they need to succeed at overcoming the business challenges that face them. As a result, business empowerment is fast becoming the central motivation for SOA, second only to business agility — and for many organizations, the most important reason of all for implementing SOA.

From User Empowerment to Business Empowerment
User empowerment is a straightforward concept: give users more powerful tools, and they have a greater ability to accomplish the tasks their jobs present to them. From the perspective of the Information Technology (IT) department, those tools are computers, mobile devices, and other bits of technology that people interface with largely on a personal, one-to-one basis. The more capabilities we load on these tools, largely through better, more powerful software, the greater user empowerment we achieve.

SOA, of course, empowers users by offering Services that abstract capabilities and information across the organization and beyond. Now, users in front of their devices have as much power and flexibility as the IT department is able and willing to offer them. With greater power, however comes greater responsibility — and for this reason more than any other is why governance is so critical for any SOA initiative. Without effective governance, user empowerment is simply too dangerous.

So far, so good, but the relationship between governance and user empowerment is a well-trodden topic here at ZapThink and elsewhere. To take this discussion to the higher level of business empowerment involves two additional dimensions: the collaboration inherent in business and the focus on business process beyond IT. Firstly, lines of business do not depend upon technology “users” per se, but rather upon teams of people who don’t identify themselves by the technology they use. Secondly, lines of business also do not identify the process these lines of business undergo in terms of the technology that supports them. On the contrary, IT plays a support role, empowering the business as needed to create, manage, and run the processes as the business sees fit.

Telling the Story beyond SOA
SOA takes an important role as the architectural approach for organizing IT resources to support such business-centric collaboration and process, but it’s important to note that SOA is not the center of the story. How the business collaborates on supporting and running business processes now takes center stage. In fact, the concept of enterprise mashups serves as a better link between IT and the business empowerment benefit we’re discussing than SOA does. As ZapThink has discussed, enterprise mashups are governed compositions of loosely-coupled Services in a rich, collaborative Internet-based environment. From the IT perspective, enterprise mashups leverage SOA to provide the loosely coupled Services that people will be mashing up, and also supports and requires the necessary governance to balance the user empowerment that results. From the business perspective, however, enterprise mashups are not about the technology at all, but rather about collaboration and process — even when such collaboration involves tasks that don’t involve technology, or when the business processes in question likewise focus on non-IT tasks.

The point we’re making here is a subtle one, because it’s entirely about a difference of perspective. IT personnel focus on how IT meets the needs of the business, as they should, but that technology-centric perspective leads to user empowerment as the end result, rather than taking the leap to business empowerment. In a way, IT has fallen into the clutches of a paradox — to best meet the needs of the business, they must think more about the business than the technology they work with every day. Now, not everyone within the IT department can, or should, focus on the business to this extent — but the Enterprise Architects (EAs) should.

ZapThink has been chiding EAs for a while now for focusing on the wrong things, and now we’re adding one more consideration that EAs should have. They must be able to juggle all the SOA/governance/enterprise mashup/collaboration/business process balls in the air at once in order to achieve the business empowerment that is the promise of the architecture. But only when EAs realize that IT plays a support position rather than a central role will they finally be on the right track.

Examples of Business Empowerment
Here are some examples to illustrate the business empowerment benefit of enterprise mashups and SOA. Look for the salient characteristic of these examples: the business context of the business empowerment benefit through collaboration and business process.

  • A call center management team responds to customer complaints by reworking how call center reps handle incoming calls
  • The eCommerce logistics team for a large online retailer rethinks the process for rerouting orders to secondary suppliers when there is an issue with a primary supplier
  • The mortgage underwriting team streamlines its approval processes in the face of shifting regulations
  • A state law enforcement officer support group improves the way that dispatchers interact with police officers on the beat.

As the above examples suggest, the real challenge for the EA team in particular — and for IT more broadly — is to support such line of business teams as they work together to improve processes by empowering them ahead of time to be able to take the actions they desire. It is no longer sufficient for the line of business in question to come up with a new requirement, chuck it over the cubicle wall to IT, and ask them to implement some new capability. Instead, IT must work proactively to enable the business teams to take the initiative to make collaborative process improvements on their own.

The ZapThink Take
The techies among us love to talk about the technology, and SOA conversations are no different. Add to the mix the concept of enterprise mashups, and we have a perfect techie storm of Rich Internet Applications, SOA, and Service compositions. What could be cooler? Users sitting in front of their computers, leveraging rich user interface technologies to mash up Services to their heart’s content. The problem is, that’s not how most lines of business operate.

The role for enterprise mashups — and SOA as well — is more subtle than that. Many business users don’t see themselves sitting in front of a computer all day, and for those that do, the technology is more of a necessary evil than the central enabler of their work. For SOA efforts to lead to true business empowerment, therefore, the focus cannot be on the interface between people and their computers. Instead, the focus must center squarely on collaboration and business process.

Of course, this challenge isn’t new. We went through the same issues back in the 1990s’ eBusiness movement, which failed to live up to expectations largely because eBusiness wasn’t supposed to be about the “e,” but rather about the “business.” Many of today’s SOA challenges boil down to the same lack of perspective on the part of IT. Not until IT organizations, and EA teams in particular, are able to understand how collaboration and business process drive enterprise mashups, which in turn drive SOA, will SOA truly empower the business.

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