Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ecosystem SOA 2

What are the problems of large complex sociotechnical systems? How far do SOA and enterprise architecture help to address this problem space, and what else might we need?

When I started writing about SOA and the service-based business over ten years ago, I defined two "cuts" across the service ecosystem. One cut separates inside from outside, while the other cut separates supply from demand.

(This diagram was included in my 2001 book on the Component-Based Business, and frequently referenced in my work for the CBDI Forum. For a brief extract from the book, see my Slideshare presentation on the Service Ecosystem.)

The inside/outside cut is sometimes called encapsulation. It decouples the external behaviour of a service from its internal implementation, and can be described in terms of knowledge - the outside has limited knowledge of the inside, and vice versa. (The cut is also sometimes called transparency - for example location transparency, which means that external viewers can't see where something is located.)

The supply/demand cut is about delegation, and can be described in terms of responsibility. Getting these two cuts right may yield economics of scale and scope; and the business case for SOA as a development paradigm is often formulated in terms of reusing and repurposing shared services.

For relatively small and simple SOA projects, it may be feasible to collapse the difference between these two cuts, and treat them as equivalent. (The inside/outside relationship and the supply/demand relationship are sometimes both described as "contracts", although they are clearly not the same kind of contract.) However, enterprise-scale SOA requires a proper articulation of both cuts: confusing them can result in suboptimal if not seriously dysfunctional governance and procurement. Many people in the SOA world still fail to understand the conceptual importance of these cuts, and this may help to explain why some organizations have had limited success with enterprise-scale SOA.

Going beyond enterprise SOA as it is generally understood, there is a third cut separating two views of a system: the system-as-designed (whose structure and behaviour and rules can perhaps be expressed in some formal syntax such as UML, BPMN or ArchiMate) and the system-in-use (whose actual performance is embedded/situated in a particular social or business context). This cut is critical for technology change management, because of the extent to which the designed system underdetermines the pragmatics of use. I have been talking about this cut for over twenty years, but only more recently working out how to articulate this cut in composition with the other two cuts.

One important reason for looking at the pragmatics of use is to understand the dimensions of agility. In many settings, we can see a complex array of systems and services forming a business platform, supporting a range of business activities. If no agility is required in the business, then it may not matter if the platform is inflexible, forcing the business activities to be carried out in a single standardized manner. But if we assume that agility is a critical requirement, then we need to understand how the flexibility of the platform supports the requisite variety of the business.

More generally, understanding the pragmatics of use leads to the recognition of a third kind of economic value alongside the economics of scale and the economics of scope: the economics of alignment. The value of a given system-of-systems depends on how it is used to deliver real (joined-up) business outcomes, across the full range of business demands. (I'm afraid I get impatient with people talking glibly and simplistically about business/IT alignment, without paying attention to the underlying complexity of this relationship.)

Understanding these three cuts (and analysing their implications) is critical to understanding and managing a whole range of complex systems problems - not just SOA and related technologies, not even just software architecture, but any large and complex sociotechnical systems (or systems-of-systems). If the three cuts are not understood, the people in charge of these systems tend not to ask the right questions. Questions of pragmatics are reduced to questions of platform design; while questions of the cost-justification and adoption of the platform are reduced to a simple top-down model of business value. Meanwhile the underlying business complexity (requisite variety) will be either misplaced (e.g. buried in the platform) or suppressed (e.g. constrained by the platform).

So there are three challenges I face as a consultant, attempting to tackle this kind of complex problem. The first challenge is to open up a new way of formulating the presenting problem, based on the three cuts. The second challenge is to introduce systematic techniques for analysing the problem and visualizing the key points. And the third challenge is to identify and support any organizational change that may be needed.

With thanks to Philip Boxer and Bernie Cohen. For a different formulation of the three cuts, together with a detailed example, see their new paper "Why Critical Systems Need Help to Evolve" Computer, vol. 43, no. 5, pp. 56-63, May 2010, doi:10.1109/MC.2010.150. See also Philip Boxer, When is a stratification not a universal hierarchy? (January 30th, 2007)

1 comment:

Yeu Wen Mak said...

If I understand your statement of a complex sociotechnical system correctly, it fits into the top left quadrant of the Cynefin Framework, meaning such an eco-system is emergent in nature, ie there are no predictable causes and effects patterns (across time and space dimensions) that make analysis (in the traditional sense) possible. Therefore, we can only hope to manage its pragmatics of use (and qualify your 2nd challenge above too) by probing, sensing and responding accordingly.
To put it in another way, in order to manage this ecosystem, I am advocating focusing on a sufficient and shared description of its current state, and articulating key, strategic possibilities and only the most critical high-level constraints (such as regulatory and security standards) to allow the creation of interventions or probes, the impact of which can be monitored to allow the emergence of a beneficial future state that is aligned with stakeholders' (customers) needs.
Finally, as you have expressed your impatience about, the underlying relationships between the constituent parts that make up this ecosystem are indeed complex and dynamic, especially in the social or business context. We risk disturbing its equilibrium just by introducing probes into the system.