We finally have the case study we have all been waiting for; British Telecom has announced after some eight years it has nearly finished making its entire infrastructure ‘entirely SOA based’.
Eight years of work on this certainly supports the statement that SOA is not new, but as anyone who has ever worked in a company that has tried to create standardisation by standardising on a single product will quickly recognise it’s not the ‘what’, meaning the product, but the ‘how’ meaning the implementation that matters. Our understanding of how to implement SOA has got better in the last year, but even now we are far from a universal agreement. Looking at the press release more carefully reveals that BT has been experimenting with Web Services since 2001. This to my mind pretty well guarantees that anything done six years ago is now obsolete and not going to work with anyone else.

I am not sure that matters in this case as BT is pretty clear that its benefits case is internal around using SOA to deliver the existing IT systems for less cost, and that’s where it gets really interesting. BT claims that there has been a 20% drop in IT staff required releasing 2000 people towards customer facing or revenue generation roles. That’s huge, and should remove any doubts as to whether the adoption of SOA as an internal methodology to deliver is justified.
I did wonder about other savings, cost reductions, or values found in business process change, as BT were honest enough to tell us that as part of moving to SOA the definitions of ‘services’ and ‘processes’ were the issue. This issue was not a technical one, but the reality of finding that the process really followed by people working in the front line was not the same as the procedure laid down in the ‘rule book’. This would seem to be proof indeed of the accuracy of the comments from some directions that SOA implementation is a business process issue more than a technology issue.
The challenge, of course, is how to engage the business people in this change to make sure that the difference is not just clarified as to what it was meant to be originally, but was rethought to say what it should be, given a better understanding of why it has changed. However to define what it should be, or even what it could be, means understanding the new possibilities, and that means looking at extending processes that flow across the business rather than segregated silo function elements. Do that right and there should be just as big a benefit case in business efficiency as the one that BT found in the IT department.
Before Business Package applications taught the lesson that it was better to use what they provided as best practice then design your own process there were a lot of people around performing the role of Business Analysts. These are just the people we are looking for to help in this challenge, it’s just when I look around now they don’t seem to be around any more. That’s a problem, and seems to suggest that we aren’t going to be able to answer the second part of the question on how shifting to SOA adds value to the business process in a hurry as we don’t seem to know who has the skill to work on this. Seems to me we are going to have to think about how we are going to re-introduce this role again.