Since the early days of Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) appearing, I have argued that SOA is a paradigm rather than a specific approach to using technology. Evidence for this ought to be that technologies change but underlying paradigms do not (see my vent on the subject of SOA v2) and so it is with SOA.
Although the initial hype around SOA died off as the marketing people sought fresher pastures and slogans with which to peddle their wares, SOA as a concept has settled comfortably into the vernacular of analysts and developers. Whole enterprise engineering disciplines have grown up around a core understanding of what SOA should be (and even a successful SOA School and accompanying certification if you want to be sure and need to prove it) and the term is eagerly grasped by business leaders as a lodestar on a choppy sea of technology change.
What interests me is that, despite years of (ab)use, the concept is alive and well. When one considers the underlying model of today’s popular themes – anything “smart” or “cloud-based/enabled/ready” – the relevance of SOA should be obvious. What may be less obvious is how central SOA should be to management and business thinking. I would go as far as saying that SOA is not principally about technology. Consider for a moment the figure below, used recently as part of my presentation of the OASIS SOA Reference Architecture Foundation to the 5th International SOA, Cloud and Services Symposium in London:
In this vision of the SOA paradigm, the centrally important concept is that of a SOA Ecosystem that bridges both the world of technology systems based on SOA principles and the social context in which such systems are developed. How effectively an ecosystem works will be a function not only of the technology and standards applied at the level of the technology systems but of the common understandings, policies, contracts and behaviours that are trashed out and agreed in the “real world” of human beings and society. SOA-based systems work well when that real-world work is done well and the central role (literally, in the figure above) of the “participant” is unbundled and fully understood.
So what does all this have to do with Dynamic Value Networks? In my opinion, everything. Michael Porter introduced the concept of a “Value Chain” in the mid-1980s. This was followed up in the late 90s with the idea of value networks: while the value chain was a powerful concept to explain how stakeholders in a business each contributed to overall business value, the value network recognized the increased interdependency between businesses and their stakeholders. In a value network, any – potentially every – stakeholder can accrue value from their relationships with others, sometimes way beyond the intention of the original chain of collaboration.
Dynamic Value Networks are typified by their ability to adapt, in real-time, to dynamic shifts in demand and supply within a particular ecosystem. The core tenet of SOA is to offer the technology infrastructure for precisely this to happen, allowing each stakeholder to realize business value and be encouraged to participate further in cross-business collaboration. A well-functioning SOA ecosystem will establish – among the real world stakeholders – policies, conventions, contracts, SLAs, etc. together with clear, detailed, structured, and machine-processable service descriptions that allow the SOA-based systems, once built and deployed, to respond dynamically and efficiently within the parameters set.
So, why bring all this up now? Very simply, because of the “National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace”, NSTIC and the new private-sector organization that has been set up to deliver its objectives, the rather clumsily named Identity Ecosystem Steering Group or IDESG (see my previous post). The key is in the new organisation’s provisional name: it is about mapping out the vision of a future ecosystem as outlined in the original NSTIC strategy.
Thinking of the identity ecosystem both as a dynamic value network and as a SOA ecosystem will help in unraveling current practices; identifying who are the stakeholders and systems involved; understanding the relationships and value created between diverse stakeholders as well as the technologies and standards used to underpin the whole. Done properly, the future identity ecosystem could represent the biggest value network the world has ever seen. Many technology companies recognise this already but only a relatively small number of non-tech businesses. The challenge, for the technology “elect” is to make their case understood in business terms that others can understand and relate to, whether they be in the public, private, academic, not-for-profit or voluntary sectors.
Central to this will be a recognition that “trust” is a deeply human process, a willingness to engage with others based on reputation and evidence. Attempting to build online trust by purely technological means, without understanding the complexities of being human, will fail. That means understanding humans, in all their complexity and in all sorts of transactions, as fully rounded individuals and not just as “users” that need to be educated. But don’t get me started about users…