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In search of business architects

by David Longworth
November 17th, 2003

Vendors agree that IT should be more responsive to business needs, but they seem unable to identify who exactly is in charge of making that happen.

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The latest enterprise software empowers business people to rearchitect the way they run their operations; but who among them has the necessary skills?
  • IT vendors have often failed to engage process owners in the buying cycle
  • Successful process innovation requires knowledge of the business and its systems
  • Business processes are becoming increasingly complex
  • Business analysts often lack sufficient overview
  • Line-of-business managers don't have specialist BPM skills

Glossary terms: business process, BPM, EAI, orchestration, ERP, lookup tool

Marketing messages in recent months have targeted groups as diverse as business analysts, enterprise architects and business process owners. IT vendors believe such individuals have a much more detailed understanding of an organization's business needs than the IT systems architects they've traditionally targeted. Crucially, therefore, vendors believe they'll have an increasing say in how IT budgets are spent.

But in practice, very few organizations have formally identified the individuals holding such roles — and where they are identified, they rarely wield much power or influence.

So when a company like BEA, for example, heralds the release of its Platform 8.1 with the message that it will help IT get back into step with the business, the message plays well with business decision-makers, but it still falls to the CIO to deliver the promised improvements.

BPM and EAI vendors have for some time been claiming that their products empower business people to model and plan business process automation, while shielding them from the complexity of the software systems below. Even when the 'process owners' who control the operations in question are not themselves the intended users of the systems, they are certainly affected by the results. But vendors have often failed to engage these crucial players in the buying cycle.

Felix Racca, co-founder of BPM vendor Fuego, says his company started out aiming its products at the IT market, pitching them as process-driven integration. Fuego quickly realised it was falling short of its potential by failing to target the people who actually run the business.

"The product is being highly under-utilised if it's just EAI. So we decided we needed to ensure we didn't leave out the business people. These are the guys that are in control of the business process and monitor and manage its evolution." Fuego, in common with other BPM vendors, now targets a "three-legged stool" of CIO/IT architect, process owner and business user or sponsor.

Wider understanding
Racca and others' approach derives from what they claim is a fundamental truth of business and IT, which posits that while the systems architects can design systems that support the business in its current mode of operation, it is only by stepping outside of those systems that a business can truly improve. And of course, it is only someone with a wider understanding of the people, processes and business partners, who can then bring about these improvements. Their products aim to support this more business-aware architect role.

Close links into the technical infrastructure are as much a necessity as a detailed knowledge of how the enterprise operates. Otherwise, would-be business architects can all too easily end up designing flow charts of business processes that bear no relation to reality. "One of the [comments] we've heard from customers is that once they design their process maps in Visio, they're static," says Jason Bunge, product manager for the flowchart design component of Microsoft Office. "When they've completed the process they have no dynamic way to update them. Often they are just printed out and stuck in a binder on the shelf. There's limited value in using straightforward business maps."

Being aware of how processes roll out across the enterprise — and beyond — is equally essential. "To be able to understand people, partners and applications, you need to sit somewhere inside the firewall — but you need to be able to take web services from external partners as well as invoking services from back-office systems that might be external," says Racca.

Fusing the two takes a combination of short-term and long-term vision that has something in common with stock market trading, says Wolfgang Gebhard, EMEA product marketing manager at Tibco, whose software was originally designed to power Wall Street trading floors: "IT is similar to a trading floor in that it needs to respond to daily changes, solve issues and provide tools to business users. But at the same time it needs to map a clear vision for the future."

Tibco hopes to encourage organizations to be more predictive of future needs, with a raft of products it's currently releasing in the BPM and enterprise event management space, tying up with systems management from IBM, CA and HP. "We want to bring enterprises to the next step after the real-time enterprise," says Gebhard.

"Business architects' current challenge is how they restructure their enterprise systems and processes in order to predict what is coming next," he explains. "The predictive enterprise provides better visibility within the company, better efficiency and better agility." In this context, Tibco's event management product EM Insight, due in 2004, is "independent of the source of the event and visualised in a manner which helps the architect."

Out of control
Charged with so much responsibility for the future success of the organization, the business architect's role is not one to be taken lightly. But it is a function that is becoming a necessity for all businesses, argues Fuego's Racca: "The struggle that companies have today and will have for some time to come is that, as regulations grow in quantity, [as] processes grow in scope and [as] organisations grow in size and change, processes are out of control.

"For the business guy, these are processes that are so out of control that they need help to fix them," he says.

"When people felt they could buy ERP, CRM and SCM to control the processes, the definition of a process was a lot more restrictive — purchase-to-pay, for example. Now processes start with communicating offers to the market and end with communicating with the market. In addition, one thing you can count on is that requirements will get bigger and tighter. [And] people will grow and change their habits and get fired, and new people will get hired and won't necessarily know the way things have been done before."

Racca's book, Business Services Orchestration: The Hyper-Tier of IT, written together with EDS enterprise consultant Waqar Sadiq, highlights a supply chain example for the sort of business services a company might want to orchestrate. "It's very cool because it deals with a great deal of complexity," says Racca. "It's never one supplier to one manufacturer. It's always many to many — and one manufacturer that buys one thing wants you to follow a certain process, while another wants you to follow a different process.

"It's a complex thing and if you don't have something agile which can deal with the ad hoc transformation and ad hoc processes, then the dream of interaction-driven integration won't happen. With BSO, it's a lot easier to do than it was before. Because you have loosely coupled connections tying the organisations together." He defines business services orchestration (BSO) as the discovery and threading together of business services, using a process model.

But while vendors are already pitching their product visions to process champions, few organizations have begun to identify who to employ in this all-encompassing role. Nor, indeed, do the process management case studies cited by vendors quite live up to their visionary rhetoric.

Tibco offers the testimony of Telenor, a Norwegian telco which uses its product for error handling in its order management process, a valuable and high-return application but, as Gebhard admits: "It's a tailored, small process."

Analyst skills
Many vendors cite business analysts as natural candidates to fulfil the role of business architect. But while analysts are often responsible for modeling business processes, typically they do so reporting to individual line-of-business managers.

One example comes from REI, a US supplier of specialty outdoor gear based in Sumner, Washington, which uses Microsoft's Visio flowchart tool to map business processes in its Novara bicycles division and streamline the production process. Through partners and in-house programming, it has built integration that allows Visio to act as a front end to a data feed from its manufacturing system. Previously, this business analyst would have had a dozen different reports to analyse, and would spend the majority of his day rooting through data, trying to make sense of it in order to present a report to his superior. Now data on the progress of the manufacturing process is fed into a web-based Visio report, so the business analyst can easily see if any problems have occurred and if so, drill down to find the cause.

While the business analyst may have the necessary skills to research and present information on a specific business function, that's on a far smaller scale than having a detailed knowledge of how processes roll out across the enterprise. Some observers, such as analyst group ZapThink, have argued instead for a hybrid enterprise architect role that combines systems architect skills with business process expertise.

The rarity of such individuals on the corporate scene today is in part symptomatic of a skills gap that enterprises will have to fill in order to take advantage of the new process-aware capabilities of today's IT products. But it's also evidence that those products have not yet matured sufficiently to be useful to the process owners they're nominally targetting.

"The whole idea," says Racca, "is to let IT people give business people the information they need to manage the process."

The inability of many products to deliver that information in an intelligible form creates a need for specialist business architects to fill in the gaps. Vendors find it convenient to target this new breed of specialists — even if they don't actually exist — because they recognize that their products are still too complex to appeal directly to the line-of-business managers who actually control business processes in the enterprise.

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