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Composable Business, SOA and the Challenge of Abundance

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Composable Business, SOA and the Challenge of Abundance

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Back when I started MWD Advisors nearly 10 years ago, the main technology trend we focused on exploring was SOA. In 2005 it seemed everyone was talking about SOA, and a vision of how this would enable companies to break free from the shackles of legacy technology investments and become radically more agile. We spent a *lot* of time trying to highlight to people the breadth of the competency you needed to build if you wanted to get value from SOA. We were definitely swimming against the tide of vendor marketing spend, though; and that was tough.

Well, now it’s 2014 and at IBM’s springtime chain of large-scale user conferences this year (Pulse, Impact and Innovate) its executives have been spending a fair amount of the big-stage airtime they’ve had in front of customers talking about the idea of Composable Business. It looks like the Composable Business concept is going to be one of the main ways IBM tries to get customers thinking big, and (we presume) buying lots of new stuff. But what does it mean?

Robert LeBlanc, IBM’s SVP for software and cloud solutions, offers a brief definition:

“A Composable Business is a business that restlessly reinvents itself by leveraging the power of cloud, mobile and data to disruptive advantage.”

[For the IBM watchers among you, it looks like Composable Business is basically IBM’s attempt to take its high level ‘Smarter Planet’ vision and apply it to corporations. You might think of it as another way of saying ‘Smarter Enterprise’ but without any risk of IBM telling its customers they’re stupid.]

I wasn’t able to attend any of these big IBM customer events in person this year, but fortunately there’s a lot of online material from IBMers, press and other attendees covering them. Coverage of the Composable Business material commonly turns up adjectives like integrated, agile and scalable; phrases like continuous improvement and informed decision-making; and technology concepts like mobile-first, DevOps, PaaS, and so on. IBM’s new Cloud Marketplace and BlueMix platforms are featured a lot.

I don’t have a problem with the Composable Business concept as far as it goes – in fact I think it’s pretty much the in line with aspects of our own Digital Enterprise analysis. However I do worry that – yet again (as with SOA, 10 years or so ago) – we might be seeing the start of a big technology marketing wave that makes vague promises about business results (agility, scalability, innovation, etc) from technology investment, without really addressing any of the thorny issues that organisations have to deal with if they are to achieve those results.

By bringing cloud, social, mobile, big data, analytics and so on into your enterprise, you don’t get a Composable Business: the very best you get is the potential to be a Composable Business. You might get a Composable Set of IT Platforms. This is not the same thing.

What’s particularly important to see here is that, in 2014, the ‘benefits delivery gap’ that exists between the technology on offer and the promised business outcomes is probably even wider than it was 10 years ago.

My strong suspicion is that reason for this widened gap is abundance, and how this messes with our existing common approaches to making and prioritising choices.

Think of the laundry list of technology trends that commonly gets called out in discussions like this: social, mobile, cloud (of various types), big data (of various types), analytics (of various types). It’s easy for IBM (or any XYZ vendor) to say that a Composable Business is cloud-powered, mobile-first in service delivery, steered by big data and analytics and so on; but where the hell do you start? What should your priorities be? Where should you look to apply these new technology options and in what combination.. and how should you do it? What kind of features should you prioritise? What kind of services do you need to enable? What’s even possible, or desirable in the context of your business?

One trigger response at this point, of course, might be to invoke the practice of architecture, and specifically Enterprise Architecture. If we can just get a firm grip on mapping out our business models and strategies, and then mapping them to our technology investments, we can start to make reasonable plans about future priorities… right?

Well, yes and no.

Certainly, EA practice can be one very valuable weapon in the armoury of anyone trying to untie the Gordian Knot of large, even complex IT estates to create more agile systems foundations.

But EA has some big problems if you consider it as your weapon of choice to create something like a Composable Business (or a Digital Enterprise) and fail to look wider. Why?

It’s because EA, as commonly practiced:

  • Is principally led from an IT-centric perspective.
  • Is primarily about unpicking existing messes (and then secondarily creating sets of rules in the hope they’ll be followed to stop future messes occurring).
  • Has almost nothing to say about customers or the influence they need to have over business models or operating models.

These issues create enough of a challenge by themselves. But on top of all this, it’s worth considering that EA as commonly practiced assumes that the prevailing business-technology environment is one characterised by scarcity – scarcity of development resources; scarcity of computing resources; and scarcity of access to new tools. The formative EA thinking that still drives many EA initiatives today was done when implementing new systems was very expensive, very slow, and very risky.

But we all know that this isn’t necessarily how things are today. Think about:

  • Open-source technology tools and platforms.
  • Cheap or even free (in terms of capital) cloud-based tools and services which offer radical scalability.
  • Freemium tool and platform licensing models.
  • Hackathons.
  • Open data platforms.

We no longer live in a world characterised by scarcity of enterprise technology or technology-based resources. We live in a world characterised by abundance. Too much choice. Too much possibility. There’s no shortage of tools, capital, data or directions to go in.

Yes, of course we’re short of man-hours, and all that time spent ‘keeping the lights on’ prevents us from doing more new stuff. But it’s quicker, cheaper and easier to create new stuff than it has ever been before.

I firmly believe that the real Big Challenge is not about how to reduce the cost of keeping the IT lights on: it’s actually figuring out what kind of new stuff, precisely, will deliver the goods for a business.

Traditional technology-centred architecture/governance practice will not help us.

What we urgently need is an approach to business-technology management practice that works in today’s abundance-of-choice environment. Peter Evans-Greenwood gets at part of the answer in IT Is a General Business Skill, Not a Specialist Skill.

A form of EA is part of this mix, but it’s just one piece of a much broader set of disciplines that we have to bring to bear – not least including Service Design.

Most importantly: overarching a new approach to management practice has to be the principle that Evans-Greenwood points out –business leaders can’t abdicate responsibility for understanding technology to technology leaders. Being able to think critically about the role of technology in a business should be part of every leader’s responsibility, and this group needs to work collaboratively to take decisions, sponsor and support initiatives and drive organisational change.

Without a fundamental shift in how technology is integrated into business leadership (and vice versa), we’ll continue to have IT initiatives pursuing shiny technologies without a bigger context guiding their work, and we’ll continue to have EA departments that spend all their time creating serious-looking diagrams and trying to make rules that nobody will ever look at, let alone follow.

You can find out more about the bigger picture of the shift to a Digital Enterprise model (or a Composable Business, if you like) in our free Digital Enterprise Shift report.

I’d love to get your thoughts on this. Do you see the need to develop new, integrated ways of designing and managing business and technology together?


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