SOA a foundation of real-time business agility

Changing a process model is not the same as changing a data model

To run a successful business, companies must address market challenges and implement changes to stay competitive in a dynamic global market place. Real-time business agility is the key to business success.

Generally, business strategies today are focused on increasing sales and cutting costs, coupled with a need to enhance flexibility. IT infrastructures are expected to support these goals by providing a quick return on investment and added value. This is not always possible, however, because staff often don't have access to necessary information, which results in data being saved in separate information silos, leading to inefficiency. Since there is no way of managing data, information and processes in a uniform way, it is difficult for good decision making to take place and the response to changed market conditions is too slow, if it happens at all.

While traditional technology architectures exist, there can be no real-time business agility. Even if a decision to change is made, a further hurdle arises. In today's business world, changing a process model is not the same as changing a data model. If a process is modified changes must take place at other levels and since this happens manually, this costs a business time and money. The typical ways in which IT can assist in such a situation are inadequate here.

Companies that are struggling to realize business agility should take note of four key requirements: productivity, visibility, versatility, and accessibility.

By automating inter-departmental processes and eliminating inefficient processes or process bottlenecks, productivity is increased. A typical example would be the processing of a customer order which is automatically sent from one department to the next as soon as one processing stage has been completed and authorized.

Visibility increases profitability. When information is distributed in real time managers can react to new market conditions and anticipate opportunities. Visibility also increases customer service levels when a standardized, consistent customer approach across the business is in place.

Versatility means aligning business strategy with IT by making changes to business processes simpler. It's far easier and quicker for staff to provide services at reduced costs and in a shorter time when there is less effort needed to make changes at different levels.

Earlier investment is secured when there is consistent accessibility of all information regardless of where it is stored. Instead of ripping out existing systems to replace them with a standardized new infrastructure, access to them is guaranteed since it takes place via a higher level. This also provides a consistent view of all information. At the same time, it is a step towards manufacturer independence- another aspect of investment security.

These four requirements can be met through a service-oriented architecture (SOA). A SOA means that varied systems can be incorporated in the information flow and specialist services can be reused via platforms. From the process perspective, BPM supports SOA. BPM focuses on processes and their aims, instead of leaving the sequence of process stages to fate or adapting to a pre-set standard.

To do this, BPM follows a cycle of modelling, automation and integration of processes, followed by analysis and ongoing optimization based on the experience gained.

Theoretically, in this way the value-added chain in a company gradually grows towards operational excellence, because throughput times are reduced and at the same time the speed at which processes can be adapted to changing market conditions increases.

To maximize the value of SOA and BPM, companies should look to vendors who offer software solutions that can fulfil the SOA promise. These solutions should offer comprehensive management of SOA metadata, i.e. of higher-ranking information about data and services. Because it is all centrally located, all information can be easily found. That is the essential prerequisite for really exploiting the strength of SOA: services can be used again, process changes can be carried out quickly throughout the company and cooperation across departmental boundaries improves. Achieving these basic SOA advantages are the first step to realizing long-term business agility.

Paul Henaghan is Software AG's senior vice president, Asia Pacific for the company's webMethods business line.

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