The Integration Business Case, continued

Nick responds to my visceral thoughts on the integration business case. There’s no point in excerpting it – go read the whole thing. I’ll wait.

It looks like for case #2, he added the ability to “change readily and inexpensively”, which is to say he made it overlap even further with #4 than it used to. He also changed #3 to make it clear that he was collecting metrics to give us “awareness of process efficiency”. That makes #3 overlap with #4 on efficiency instead of #1 on BI, but either way it’s still redundant.

So we’re still left with the business cases of Business Intelligence, Efficiency and Agility. Nick conflates Efficiency and Agility both in his original post and his follow-up, but I think it makes sense to separate them. I still stand by my original point that the business is only interested in directly funding Business Intelligence.

Nick is willing to bet a nice lunch that MSFT has invested more in improving operational efficiency that we have on BI in the past four years. He’s probably right, but he missed the point I was making. The business will readily invest in improving a specific process they can measure the ROI on improving. MSFT has lots of processes, I’m sure most of them have significant room for improvement.

But Nick’s list isn’t about specific improvements. He’s explicitly wrote that he’s describing a scenario where “our systems are all optimally integrated”. Selling the business on generally improving efficiency is very different that selling the business on improving the efficiency of a specific process. I’d bet the same nice lunch that the vast majority – if not all – of integration infrastructure running at MSFT was originally deployed as part of a specific business scenario that needed to be solved.

My point here is most businesses are better at funding projects to meet specific business needs than it is at funding pure infrastructure projects.

As for agility. Martin Fowler pointed out once that adding flexibility means adding complexity. But chances are, you’ll be wrong about the flexibility you think you’ll need. So you actually end up with the additional complexity but none of the flexibility benefit. Martin recommends “since most of the time we get it wrong, just don’t put the flexibility in there”. Instead, you should strive for simplicity, since simpler systems are easier to understand and thus easier to change.

Does the same philosophy apply to process? I think so, though there is one thing I’d be willing to risk being wrong on. We all expect the steps in a process to change over time, so moving to a declarative model for process definition sounds like a good idea. Luckily, there’s existing platform infrastructure that helps you out here. But beyond that, I can’t think of a flexibility requirement that I’m so sure of that I’m willing to take on the additional complexity.

Again, I’m not saying efficiency or agility (or integration for that matter) are bad things. I’m saying they’re a tough sell to the business in the absence of specific scenarios. Selling the business on automating the ordering processing is feasible. Selling the business on building out integration infrastructure because some future project will leverage it is much tougher. If you can sell them on it, either because the company is particularly forward thinking or because you can sell ice to Eskimos, then more power to you. But for the rest of us, better to focus on specific scenarios that the business will value and keep the integration details under wraps.

The One Business Case for Integration

Nick Malik lays out what he thinks are the four business cases for integration:

Assume we succeeded, and our systems are all optimally integrated.  What has changed?

  1. We have better business intelligence.  We have better understanding of our customers, our partners, our products, and our business.  And from that understanding, we make better decisions.  Those decisions are made in a federated manner using self-apparent information.
  2. We have end-to-end business processes that cross multiple systems, multiple roles, multiple geographies, and multiple data stores, all aware of and supporting the needs of the customer.
  3. We have end-to-end awareness of the metrics that drive both dissatisfaction and cost, and we can take that knowledge and apply it to making our business better.
  4. We have a more efficient enterprise, more able to grow to a larger size, at an accelerated rate, and still respond with agility to changing business opportunities.

I put to you that, in fact, we only have one business case for integration: better business intelligence. The other reasons Nick lists are either redundant or not as important to the business – at least in the general case – as you might think.

First off, #3 from Nick’s list sounds suspiciously like #1. If there’s a difference between “better understanding driving better decisions” and “applying awareness of metrics to making our business better”, I don’t know what it is. We’ll send one of them off to the Dept. of Redundancy Dept. and be done with it.

Second, I don’t think the business cares that IT has multiple systems or multiple data stores. If the business could run on one big centralized system that could meet the needs of the customer (aka the ERP fantasy), they’d be fine with that. The fact that realities of modern enterprise IT require splitting up capabilities across many systems is an implementation detail that frankly isn’t a concern of the business.

Besides, what’s the business benefit here? News flash: the enterprise already has end-to-end business processes that cross multiple systems, multiple roles, blah blah blah. They’re just not automated end-to-end. Does the business care that their not automated? Not a bit. Sure, they care about processes are slow, costly and error-prone, which manual processes tend to be. But it’s those negative characteristics that the business cares about, not integration. Besides, making processes quick, cheap and error-free sounds a lot like making them efficient. In other words, more work for the Dept. of Redundancy Dept.

Finally, I don’t think efficiency and agility is as important to the enterprise as Nick makes it out to be. I mean, the enterprise will say it cares about efficiency – especially in front of the stock holders. But when it comes to putting it’s money where it’s mouth is, the enterprise doesn’t, more often than not. Think about how success is measured in the typical IT project. Is efficiency one of the criteria for judging success? Not really. Will your project stakeholders let you run over budget and ship a few months late, just to improve efficiency? Probably not, unless that efficiency gain is both demonstrable and dramatic.

Of course, there are certainly specific examples where a automation or efficiency business case for integration can be made. For example, if replacing a specific manual process with an automated one has a large and measurable ROI, the business will likely be interested in making that investment. If you have a certain process that you do over and over that’s core to the business, the business will probably be interested in optimizing the frak out of it. For example, I would guess a delivery company like UPS or FedEx has spent a lot of time and money on optimizing their delivery processes.

But what it sounds like Nick’s talking about here is making a general case for making all our systems “optimally integrated”. Given that our current systems aren’t, this would take significant time and money. Yet the tangible benefit to the business is at best nebulous. Nick thinks improved integration will allow the business to “respond with agility to changing business opportunities.” He’s probably right. But how do you quantify this agility? How much will we save in the future for what we’re spending today? For the general case, the answer is “it depends”. It’s really hard to fund a project when it’s projected ROI is “it depends” .

However, business intelligence is a no brainer for the enterprise to invest in. Giving decision makers better and more up-to-date information, that’s a tangible benefit that the organization can quantify now. If you can quantify the value of a project, you’ve got the start of a budget. Of course, all that juicy data is smeared across a variety of systems, which means integration. Again, the enterprise doesn’t really care about said multiple systems or integration, but they care about the outcome.

Nick recommends to SOA folks that “if you aren’t already working with your BI team, pick up the phone. Their mature processes and practices are able to address many of your issues, and the natural synergy between BI and SOA can make them a strong ally in the fight for a better, faster, cheaper, and more intelligent enterprise.” Good advice. Otherwise, selling integration to the business isn’t much different than selling them SOA. In other words, don’t sell it – just do it.