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How manufacturers can become SOA-ready

Implementing SOA seems like a natural progression from managing ERP deployments. Yet it's more challenging for manufacturers to deploy than you might think.

If ever there were an industry ideally configured to take advantage of the promise of service-oriented architectures (SOAs), it would be manufacturing. But we need to make sure that when manufacturers discuss SOA projects, everyone says and means the same thing.

As manufacturing is an essential element of almost every enterprise supply and/or value chain, manufacturing decision-makers are as focused as their ERP management counterparts on visibility, manageability, agility and performance. In addition, manufacturing environments face an ever-changing mix of manufacturing-specific information and technologies, integration requirements as well as where IT is focusing on business operations.

These conditions provide a strong argument for a strategic and architectural focus on business-centric services, rather than the customary business or IT infrastructure minutiae. Or in other words, focus on a service-oriented business architecture ("SOBA," anyone?), which may or may not rely upon any specific SOA platforms.

In real life, business-centric SOA is a combination of many parts -- policies, practices, processes, services, resources, technologies and metrics, as well as the business goals and requirements that drive these policies, practices and processes. Furthermore, these goals and requirements define and prioritize a company's IT services, resources and underlying technologies. All of the above are – at least in theory -- supported by business performance metrics.

Easy to say, but challenging to do. Adding to the challenge are three other tasks that are essential to the success of strategic IT and business initiatives:

  1. Identifying and prioritizing key business goals and needs, and their primary stakeholders and decision influencers.
  2. Selecting the mix of technology and resources that aligns most closely with specific business needs and goals and stakeholder concerns.
  3. Ensuring that incumbent contracts, agreements and practices protect the business against technological and market turbulence.

How can manufacturing organizations best map the three required tasks to the elements outlined above? The alignment point here is identifying and prioritizing the key business services. In all manufacturing environments, the stakeholders likely agree that:

  1. These services are critical to both manufacturing specifically and the business generally.
  2. These services rely upon multiple diverse technologies and/or interactions with other services, which in turn presents integration challenges.
  3. The business value of these services could be increased significantly if integration could be improved on almost any level – perhaps most notably and immediately with more integrated reporting or performance management.

Manufacturing decision-makers should work with key stakeholders to select one or more services that meet the above criteria. The next step would be to identify and document the relevant other services, resources and technologies that affect (and are affected by) the selected core services. These should then be used to develop initial SOA projects and criteria by which candidate vendors and their technology are assessed, and the most promising candidates pilot-tested.

All of the above entails specific action items for tactically focused IT and business staff – those workers with their noses to the grindstone and their shoulders to the wheel. For example, they should ensure that all relevant metrics and evaluation criteria are based on real-life conditions experienced by actual users, starting with their own teams. They include metrics used to assess how critical to the business current IT applications and services are and how they perform. Those metrics and criteria should then be used to evaluate candidate, pilot and production SOA projects.

Stakeholders with this same tactical focus must also ensure that their teams receive adequate preparation for the introduction of any new application, SOA-related or otherwise. This is especially critical if the new applications require changes in any established business processes or operational practices. Adequate preparation can range from self-paced documentation to hands-on training, but must begin as early as is practical, preferably while initial pilot tests of candidate solutions are being conducted.

As long as solutions are based on widely supported standards, and backed by vendors with proven expertise and contractual protections, manufacturers can proceed toward SOAs with confidence.
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Perhaps most important, tactically-focused stakeholders must ensure that their concerns are represented in the strategies of senior business and technology decision-makers. Success in this effort may not require eternal vigilance, but it certainly requires continuous vigilance, perhaps even to the point of lobbying for active participation in the team responsible for turning SOA strategies into actions.

With this approach, specific services can be "SOA-enabled" in ways closely aligned with business goals and needs, without the need to "boil the ocean" or commit to any particular overarching technological framework or architecture. As long as specific solutions are based on widely supported technologies and standards, and backed by vendors with proven expertise and contractual protections, manufacturing enterprises can proceed toward service-oriented business architectures with confidence.

About the author: Michael E. Dortch is the principal analyst and managing editor of DortchOnIT.com, "an independent voice for technology-dependent people." He has been an IT industry analyst focused on translating technologies into business value for more than three decades. He can be reached at www.DortchOnIT.com or at medortch@dortchonit.com.

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