Balancing our two masters

We seem to be torn between two masters. On one hand we’re driven to renew our IT estate, consolidating solutions to deliver long term efficiency and cost savings. On the other hand, the business wants us to deliver new, end user functionality (new consumer kiosks, workforce automation and operational excellence solutions …) to support tactical needs. But how do we balance these conflicting demands, when our vertically integrated solutions tightly bind user interaction to the backend business systems and their multi-year life-cycle? We need to decouple the two, breaking the strong connection between business system and user interface. This will enable us to evolve them separately, delivering long term savings while meeting short term needs.

Business software’s proud history is the story of managing the things we know. From the first tabulation systems through enterprise applications to modern SaaS solutions, the majority of our efforts have been focused data: capturing or manufacturing facts, and pumping them around the enterprise.

We’ve become so adept at delivering these IT assets into the business, that most companies’ IT estates a populated with an overabundance of solutions. Many good solutions, some no so good, and many redundant or overlapping. Gardening our IT estate has become a major preoccupation, as we work to simplify and streamline our collection of applications to deliver cost savings and operational improvements. These efforts are often significant undertakings, with numbers like “5 years” and “$50 million” not uncommon.

While we’ve become quite sophisticated at delivering modular business functionality (via methods such as SOA), our approach to supporting users is still dominated by a focus on isolated solutions. Most user interfaces are slapped on as nearly an after thought, providing stakeholders with a means to interact with the vast, data processing monsters we create. Tightly coupled to the business system (or systems) they are deployed with, these user interfaces are restricted to evolving at a similar pace.

Business has changed while we’ve been honing our application development skills. What used to take years, now takes months, if not weeks. What used to make sense now seems confusing. Business is often left waiting while we catch up, working to improve our IT estate to the point that we can support their demands for new consumer kiosks, solutions to support operational excellence, and so on.

What was one problem has now become two. We solved the first order challenge of managing the vast volumes of data an enterprise contains, only to unearth a second challenge: delivering the right information, at the right time, to users so that they can make the best possible decision. Tying user interaction to the back end business systems forces our solutions for these two problems to evolve at a similar pace. If we break this connection, we can evolve users interfaces at a more rapid pace. A pace more in line with business demand.

We’ve been chipping away at this second problem for a quite a while. Our first green screen and client-server solutions were over taken from portals, which promised to solve the problem of swivel-chair integration. However, portals seem to be have been defeated by browser tabs. While these allowed us to bring together the screens from a collection of applications, providing a productivity boost by reducing the number of interfaces a user interacted with, it didn’t break the user interfaces explicit dependancy on the back end business systems.

We need to create a modular approach to composing new, task focused user interfaces, doing to user interfaces what SOA has done for back-end business functionality. The view users see should be focused on supporting the decision they are making. Data and function sourced from multiple back-end systems, broken into reusable modules and mashed together, creating an enterprise mash-up. A mashup spanning multiple screens to fuse both data and process.

Some users will find little need an enterprise mash-up—typically users who spend the vast majority of their time working within a single application. Others, who work between applications, will see a dramatic benefit. These users typically include the knowledge rich workers who drive the majority of value in a modern enterprise. These users are the logistics exception managers, who can make the difference between a “best of breed” supply chain and a category leading one. They are the call centre operators, whose focus should be on solving the caller’s problem, and not worrying about which backend system might have the data they need. Or they could be field personnel (sales, repairs …), working between a range of systems as they engage with you customer’s or repair your infrastructure.

By reducing the number of ancillary decisions required, and thereby reducing the number of mistakes made, enterprise mash-ups make knowledge workers more effective. By reducing the need to manually synchronise applications, copying data between them, we make them more efficient.

But more importantly, enterprise mash-ups enable us to decouple development of user interfaces from the evolution of the backend systems. This enables us to evolve the two at different rates, delivering long term savings while meeting short term need, and mitigating one of the biggest risks confronting IT departments today: the risk of becoming irrelevant to the business.

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