Jan 27, 2009

On Demand: Agility Required

My wife sat next to my 9 year old daughter sharing a moment of watching a video on Youtube. My daughter watched, came to a part that she didn't enjoy as much and slid the play-slider up to another part. My wife responded by saying "that's really annoying, you learned that from your older sister."

I paused her and explained that for my daughter, media is an on-demand experience. Pick what you want, watch it, skip parts you don't want, rewatch parts you particularly enjoy, and share it with friends & family with a click. Whereas my and my wife's experience is broadcast media. You watch (or listen) to what comes on, watch it from beginning to end, and if you missed it - oh well. We don't interact with or adjust our watching experience - she does.

(I've actually been in the car with the radio on and had my children say "could you pause it and put that back, I didn't catch what he said".)

Clearly for those in the media business this poses a major paradigm shift in the expectations of their consumer. This changes not only how they package and deliver their product, but how the meet the challenges of a new customer interaction pattern. They need a level of agility that was never previously even a minor business concern.

Unfortunately, like my wife and I, most of the media executives come from a generation that had a different interaction pattern. This makes it difficult for them to intuitively grasp the changing expectations of their customer base.

I find a similar scenario in many corporate IT shops. The customer expectations have changed or are changing quickly. For example, which is more important in your banking relationship today - the convenience of the branch location and customer service level in the branch, or the capability and functionality of the customer account web site? (Personally, I once dropped consideration of a new bank because they didn't integrated into a Quicken automatic import, and changed to another bank that had a significantly more advanced account management web site and online bill pay options.)

Now the business comes to the IT department with what is essentially a new requirement: rearrange the systems to expose data and transaction functionality directly to the customer. And further, be prepared to adjust and manipulate as customer expectations continue to change. In other words, agility.

SOA came along to help solve this problem. However, the problem is legacy applications. NO ONE (that I know of) has a SOA - a Service Oriented ARCHITECTURE. They have a mass of legacy applications running their business that suddenly need to be twisted to move from primarily operating via their user interface to operating via a service interface.

I met with an insurance company recently, one that literally did not exist 10 years ago and was created as a direct-to-the-customer company. Their "legacy" applications are only 10 years old, yet they are just as much bound by their legacy environment and the paradigm upon which it was built as the Fortune 50 corporation in New York that has 40 years of computer infrastructure behind them. Both are struggling with offering new customer facing functionality.

One must architect for agility. Every IT shop has an architecture, whether explicit (designed, maintained and molded towards current and future business needs) or implicit (as business requirements were placed upon each individual project, an overall enterprise architecture developed out of the combined project results from those requirements). As the need for agility has grown, it must be expressed as an explicit requirement, both upon individual projects and across the IT enterprise.

SOA will help with that requirement, but is not the end all of agility.