Sunday, September 28, 2008

Business Agility

Business agility (along with business-IT alignment) is often touted as one of the key benefits of SOA. The problem is that more often than not no explanation is given for what business agility actually is, why it is important, or how SOA contributes to achieving it.

Firstly, it is important to note that business agility is a relative goal as opposed to an absolute one. Even the most agile business can strive for greater agility.

So what is business agility? Business agility is the degree to which an organisation can effectively innovate and respond to market forces.

In any given undertaking within an organisation, there are the traditional project management constraints of time, resource, scope and quality. For a fixed scope if we wish to decrease time to delivery, we must increase resource or decrease quality. For fixed resource if we wish to decrease time to delivery, we must decrease scope or quality.

Note that scope refers to the amount of work that needs to be done to deliver the agreed outcome. But as always, there is more than one way to skin a cat. The business objectives targeted by the project can be met in any number of different ways. A talented Solution Architect can design a solution to a business problem that requires less work to deliver.

Really what we are talking about here is contrasting business value with effort. If an organisation has a highly complex IT architecture that is very tightly coupled with a large number of interdependencies, then a change will take more effort to achieve, but deliver the same business value.

In order to have an agile organisation, we must have the ability to enact change with less effort. SOA helps simplify the IT architecture of an organisation by making systems more loosely coupled. Of course, there are varying degrees of loose coupling with different SOA implementations.

The SOA architectural style reduces coupling through message based interactions conforming to explicitly defined service contracts that encapsulate the implementation details of services away from consumers. This gives us the ability to make changes to service implementations without impacting their consumers.

We reduce coupling further by designing our services with appropriate granularity and cohesion, based on publish-subscribe messaging with stable service contracts.

The IT architecture of an organisation however is only one piece of the business agility puzzle. Once a business need has been identified, the business requirements must be extracted. The speed, efficiency and accuracy with which this activity is performed also contribute to business agility. There is very little business value in delivering a solution that doesn't meet the identified business objectives.

Furthermore once we have extracted our business requirements, assuming they are accurate, we need to produce a solution architecture that meets those requirements. So an organisation's proficiency in Solution Architecture is also significant here.

We also want to ensure that as each solution is delivered, the complexity of the business and IT architecture is not adversely affected. As such, we need the proper architecture governance processes in place to protect the broader enterprise architecture.

It is important to strike the right balance with governance however. Inefficient governance processes slow the rate at which projects can be delivered, thus harming business agility. Insufficient governance however will result in the gradual increase of architectural complexity, thus harming business agility in the long run.

Simply developing an effective solution architecture is still not enough. We must of course then go about implementing the solution. Here, the effectiveness of the organisation's project and programme management function is relevant, as well as the proficiency of the people that build and deploy the solution.

And finally once the solution is ready to deploy, there must be effective change management processes in place to ensure that affected workers are properly trained and informed to support the change. If the solution is not embraced by the people it affects, then the change will be ineffective.

So why all the fuss about business agility? Simply put, an organisation that doesn't respond to its changing environment will eventually become uncompetitive. Granted that some industries are more volatile than others, however all business environments change over time. Those businesses that are able to embrace this change in order to generate competitive advantage will be more successful.

Innovation is also a key consideration in generating competitive advantage. The ability to be able to take an idea and turn it into reality in less time, with less cost and lower risk certainly generates competitive advantage.

So in conclusion, SOA as a style of architecture contributes towards business agility through reduction of enterprise architectural complexity, but by no means guarantees it.


dave said...

"If an organisation has a highly complex IT architecture that is very tightly coupled with a large number of interdependencies, then a change will take more effort to achieve, but deliver the same business value."

Don't agree with this. It MAY deliver the same business value, but if it causes projects to be more costly and take longer then the business value (ie the cost relative to the benefit ) may not be delivered at all. eg, a project is required to hit a delivery date for a new product, first move advantage is critical to achieve sales and profits, but the project can only be delivered later because the architecture makes it to difficult.

Delivering business value is about cost v benefit and both are fairly elastic terms.

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