Can we free process and data?
I am still at IBM’s Information on Demand conference here in Las Vegas (not my favorite place..but what can you do). In listening to a lot of discussions around strategy and products I started thinking about one of the key problems that customers are facing around business process and managing increasingly complex data. What companies really want to do is to have the flexibility and freedom to leverage their critical data across applications and situations. They also want to be able to change processes based on changing business models.
This is the core issue that companies will be facing in the coming decade and will be the difference between success and failure for many businesses. Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s take the example of a retailer in a competitive market. Let’s say our retailer had five or six applications: Accounting, Human Resources, supply chain management, a customer support system, and a customer facing e-commerce system. Each of these systems has an underlying database; each one manages this data based on the business process that is the foundation of the best practices that is the value of these packages. Even if each of the packages are the best in their markets there is a core problem since each solution is a silo. Processes that move between these systems tend to fall through the cracks. This is why we, as customers of such retailers, are often frustrated when we call about a product that wasn’t delivered, doesn’t work, or requires a change only to discover that one department has no ability to know what is happening in another area. For most companies the dream of single view of the customer is aspirational but not practical right now. In reality, it is hard for companies to mess with their existing applications. These solutions are customized for their business environment; they were expensive and complicated to implement — and change is hard. In fact, companies only change when it is more painful to stay with the status quo than it is to change. In a retail scenario, companies change their approach to process and data management when they must change their business model because the current processes will lead to failure. Retailers are currently faced with emerging approaches to selling and managing customer relationships that are challenging traditional selling models. Look what a company like Amazon.com or Netflex have done to their slower moving competitors.
A number of customers I have spoken with understand this very well. They are looking at ways to separate their core data assets from the underlying applications. Many of these customers are at the forefront of implementing a service oriented architecture (SOA) approach to managing their software assets. They are increasingly understanding that the secret to their future success is the knowledge they have about their customers, their needs and future requirements within their own set of offerings and those from partners. These companies are setting a priority of making this data independent, secure, and accurate. These business leaders are preparing for inevitable change. At the same time, I have seen these customers creating SOA business services that are, in essence, codified business processes. For example, a business service could be a process that checks the credit of a potential partner or links a new customer request for service to the set of applications that confirms the request, orders the part, and notifies a partner.
So, here is the problem. These customers are implementing this new model of abstracting data and process based on specific projects or business initiatives. These projects have gotten the attention of the C-team because of the impact on revenue. But, in reality, the real breakthrough will happen when the separation of data and process are the rule, not the exception.
This is going to be the overriding challenge for the next decade because it is so hard. There is inertia to move away from the predictable packaged applications that companies have implemented for more than 30 years. But I suggest that it will be inevitable that companies will begin to understand that if they are going to remain agile and change processes when they anticipate a competitive threat. These same companies will understand that their data is too important to leave it locked inside an application linked tightly to a process.
I don’t have the answers about what the tipping point will be when this starts to become a wide spread strategy. I think that the cloud will became a forcing action that will accelerate this trend. I would love to start a dialog. Send me your thoughts and I promise to post them.