SOA: Slowly breaking the IT innovation bottleneck?

So often discussions about SOA return to the subject of how to communicate the SOA message to business, convince them to invest and to have faith in the opportunities that SOA can generate.

In these discussions, the CIO is often held up as both the potential champion and the potential bogeyman.  A bogeyman in the sense that they are sometimes considered to be the blockers to innovation.  SOA proponents sometimes mutter what some Web2.0 proponents shout from the rooftops.  As Chris Anderson, inventor of the Web2.0 “Long Tail” concept put it recently:

“CIOs, it turns out, are mostly business people who have been given the thankless job of keeping the lights on, IT wise. And the best way to ensure that they stay on is to change as little as possible.”

Chris is right in pointing out that there is an underlying problem with enterprise IT and innovation.  However, I think it is simplistic to point the finger at CIOs and their perceived defence of the status quo.  Rather I believe Christopher Koch is much closer the mark in his excellent piece titled “Oh right, we forgot that CIOs are unimaginative as well as being fat, lazy and reflexive” (I couldn’t resist repeating the title).

“The predominant view, even in companies that claim IT to be “strategic,” is that the business owns innovation, not IT”

To put it another way: We may be able to reel off the IT successes that transformed the business from Walmart’s supply chain management to Fedex packaging tracking.  However, these are exceptions rather than the rule.  In many if not most cases, business managers simply do not believe that IT can be an engine of significant change and do not expect or even want IT to innovate.  Partly, this is a cultural legacy with organisations not realising the degree to which their business is IT driven.  It is also partly a cultural legacy of IT departments, only too willing to stay in their comfort zone.  As Christopher puts it:

It’s time for CEOs and business management to acknowledge that just as their businesses are now completely reliant upon IT, they are more reliant on the geeks to help them innovate. And the geeks need to worry less about development languages and start worrying more about the business.

Obviously, it is also due to the technology legacy we are all familiar with which makes change hard and running to stand still enough of a challenge for many.  To quote from Christopher again:

“As long as we persist in the naïve assumption that CIOs should be able to use 10-20 percent of their budgets to create a constant stream of breakthrough innovation on top of a creaky infrastructure that consumes nearly all of their management time and staff’s attention, we will not have significant progress.”

Is it all too bleak?  Business regards IT as plumbers and IT is spending all of its time and resource patching leaky pipes.  Of course, this situation is precisely that which leads to the enthusiastic acceptance of the SOA concept by enterprise IT:  IT embracing the need to align with business and SOA providing the groundwork for a more agile environment and hence potentially facilitating a steady stream of small and well-targeted innovation.  To quote Christopher, a final time:

“These small innovations add up, but more importantly, they can change more quickly, giving CIOs something they’ve never known with traditional applications and infrastructures: a measure of agility.”

This is precisely what we begin to see in organisations successfully moving along the SOA adoption path:  CIOs, who have gained sufficient agility, can begin to play a role in driving innovation and a role in business strategy.  However, this may take a long time in many organisations as it requires both delivery on the promise of SOA and a revolution in the perception of IT by business managers.  And we must accept that during the process, there is no point pointing figures at the champion or other people who “don’t get it”.


Posted in Imported, Industry trends, SOA, Web2.0.