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Agile Digital Transformation: Article

Identify & Achieve ROI with Your SOA Training

Why you need a comprehensive and well-reasoned education strategy

An ancient Chinese proverb says, "Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand."

For many people, even entire organizations, the approach to education seems to be along the lines of learning facts, figures, details, tools and standards. This results in a shallow understanding of both the business problem and the new Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) strategies available for addressing the business's needs. The next step is either to scrap the initiative or pour more time and money into patching the solution to bridge the chasm that could have been avoided with a more complete understanding of the domain and the implications and strategies surrounding service orientation.

In this article, we'll unpack the challenges facing organizations that adopt a service-oriented enterprise strategy with a special emphasis on the importance of training. We'll then examine best practices regarding SOA education. Finally we'll crystallize the return on investment (ROI) delivered by prioritizing SOA education.

SOA Skills Shortage
Multiple experts have recognized the tremendous shortage of SOA skills:

  • "There is a looming enterprise architect ‘drought' and a significant demand in the marketplace for experienced SOA talent," said ZapThink principal Ron Shmeltze a few years ago.
  • "Both SOA and Web Services application development pose unique challenges to the skills of the department," the Aberdeen Group said.
  • "There is a shortage of SOA skills in a typical company and demand for SOA skills far outstrips the supply," according to, AMR research director Ian Finley a year ago.

Then an IBM survey that queried Fortune 1000 CEOs in 2008 found that 56% said a shortage of SOA skills is the number one obstacle to "launching and delivering SOA projects with strong business impact."

How is it that such a significant gap in skills has existed for so long? First, many people assume that SOA can be learned from books. Second, there's a lack of awareness regarding the significant value-add that genuine education provides.

Learning SOA
Then "learning SOA" the de facto approach tends to be a combination of self-study, sending a couple people to a conference, and taking one or two technical classes from a major platform vendor. Unfortunately, this results in ill-informed SOA adoption plans, vendor-driven architectural designs, and ultimately solutions that don't meet business needs.

To salvage the project, organizations typically pour in additional resources to try to patch and augment the project, moving closer to a successful state. This sort of post-design patchwork rarely produces a solution that completely addresses enterprise needs. Moreover, these solutions tend to be less resilient to change, resulting in an inability to adapt alongside the changing organization.

Adopting SOA and a service-oriented approach to business is a non-trivial task. Significant changes must be made in the business analysis discipline, solution design and architecture, as well as development, testing, and effective project management. Acquiring a solid grasp of methodology as well as developing new skill sets is crucial for the successful adoption of SOA. The fact is that few organizations invest in preparing for the shift that is required in terms of mindset as well as knowledge and skills.

The Value of Education
The Aberdeen Group released a report in 2007, "SOA Middleware Takes the Lead: Picking up Where Web Services Leaves Off" that included its findings in a survey of 400 organizations that had adopted SOA over a period of 18 months. It identified key best practices for adopting SOA identified as standard practices performed by "best-in-class" organizations.

According to Aberdeen, best-in-class organizations (the top 20% of aggregate performance scorers) prioritize investments in education/training, architecture, SOA middleware and infrastructure, and processes aimed at measuring and tweaking performance.

Correspondingly average organizations (the middle 50% of aggregate performance scorers) tend to make minor investments in SOA middleware and infrastructure, very little in education/training, and have virtually ignored organizational performance measurement metrics for refining the enterprise

The Aberdeen report advises organizations to retrain their development teams. "Don't expect IT to just ‘get it''when it comes to SOA," it says.

Furthermore, it also says, "Don't skimp on training. Even though SOA applications are similar to earlier distributed architectures that you may have experience with, the difference are significant and require new approaches to design and develop."

Identifying and Achieving a Return on Training Investments
Calculating a specific ROI for education is a tricky proposition. According to research conducted by UK-based e-Skills and reported in its Q4 2005 ICT inquiry report, only 11% of businesses quantitatively measure ROI for IT spending. Those that do are predominately medium-sized and larger organization in the technology industry. The vast majority (89%) rely on "informed guesswork" or "personal intuition" rather than any sort of defined process for measuring the productivity returns for technology investments.

The lack of historical metrics and ROI tracking for technology initiatives makes crafting a reliable value proposition challenging. If you happen to be one of the minorities of companies that have this data then you can use that as your baseline for gauging the improvement offered by education. Otherwise, you may need to get creative with how you can articulate the pre-training cost of doing business and then compare that against a post-training cost of doing business.

Step 1: Focus your education initiative
Regardless of whether you have good historical data to go on or simply have to use more recent data combined with some educated extrapolations, you'll need to identify specific metrics that you intend to improve through education. This will provide two key benefits: 1) You'll have objective targets to hit, providing you with a means of measuring education success and 2) The education program can be focused to target improvement in the specific areas that are relevant to your business. Two common focal points include project execution (i.e., ability to deliver on time and on budget) and solution quality (i.e., providing products and/or services with a minimal number of defects).

Step 2: Select a measurable metric
One approach would be to calculate project overruns due to poor analysis and design (a key target of SOA education). Another approach would be to calculate the cost of service defects and/or service refactoring with an eye toward improving the quality of services and processes post training (cutting these costs by 20%-40% is a reasonable target objective).

Many of our clients find that one effective and reliable approach is to aim for a measurable improvement in knowledge and practical skill sets. This sort of analysis can be achieved through administering pre-training tests, post-training tests, and then a third evaluation six weeks later to gauge the applicability of the education from a practical implementation perspective.

Step 3: Have test pilots take the lead
Prior to a major education rollout, it's important to have a select group of personnel serve as test pilots for the training. Ideally, this group should be senior-level, very involved in the adoption of SOA and perhaps even participants within the organization's SOA Center of Excellence (CoE). While taking the training, this group can look for opportunities to tweak terminology, refine examples to be more relevant to the organization, and otherwise tailor the course content to more accurately reflect the motivations for adopting SOA and ensure that the ROI metrics (identified earlier) are achieved.

Step 4: Put governance gates in place
Identifying your ROI objectives is only half the battle. You also need to establish checkpoints along the way to evaluate the progress and ensure that you are on target. Recommended governance gates include a preliminary check prior to the first course delivery, another check after the first course, and then periodic checks every three-six weeks. Finally, there should be some major milestone (the third or fourth month is generally good) during which a more comprehensive analysis and adjustment is performed. At each of these steps, the education program should be evaluated and tuned to ensure that it is targeting the right content at the appropriate degree of depth. Additionally, information from the field should be folded back into the education program to ensure that the training program is timely and relevant.

Summary
Business-driven, results-oriented SOA training can mean the difference between a SOA adoption initiative that meets leadership expectations and one that does not. Too often, SOA training focuses on teaching vendor tools or simply providing academic facts and details regarding SOA and related technology standards. If you truly want to change your enterprise for the better through service orientation, you need a comprehensive and well-reasoned education strategy. That strategy should be business-driven and include objective, quantifiable metrics. Make 2009 your year to achieve ROI from your SOA education program.

More Stories By Kyle Gabhart

Kyle Gabhart is a subject matter expert specializing in strategic planning and tactical delivery of enterprise technology solutions, blending EA, BPM, SOA, Cloud Computing, and other emerging technologies. Kyle currently serves as a director for Web Age Solutions, a premier provider of technology education and mentoring. Since 2001 he has contributed extensively to the IT community as an author, speaker, consultant, and open source contributor.

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