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Lessons from ‘Old Europe’

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Does Europe know something we don’t know about Web services? At a recent CIO summit I attended in Spain, 50-odd CIOs from Europe’s top companies surprised everyone, including themselves, with acknowledgement that, by a margin of two to one, their companies were actively developing Web services-based applications.

The irony of this overwhelming support is that many confessed they were most likely working on Web services-based applications without necessarily knowing it: the nice thing about Web services is that the definition these days is loose enough to encompass a vast range of functionality and design criteria.

But there was little doubt that the quantity of companies acknowledging the fact marked a key inflection point in the market. Web services applications were now in the mainstream of European IT management thinking, even among old-line, mainstream companies that, the common wisdom says, should eschew hype-driven marketing terms and bleeding edge technologies.

This wasn’t just any group of CIOs; the list included a who’s who of top European manufacturers, telcos, consumer goods companies, and others. These were the battle-scarred veterans of technology change and economic turmoil, technologists who were also business-savvy executives. Among their biggest concerns were making sure that no one thought they believed in technology for technology’s sake. So why were they providing some of the best evidence yet that Web services applications are not just interesting technology but also make good business sense as well?

The answer in part lies in an evolving definition of Web services that has become inclusive of efforts across many companies to close the automation gaps that exist in their applications portfolios. Web services have emerged from the hype of the last two years to embody the very real desire of most businesses to make better use of the business processes that are already in use in their companies. These business processes are often poorly automated — mostly because full automation would require linking together existing applications that today are hard to integrate in a cost-effective, scalable manner.

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The result is that what little automation is used to run complex processes like, for example, post-merger integration, is largely a mix of Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides. The theoretical cost-effectiveness of achieving a new level of automation using Web services is especially appealing to business managers also looking for hard evidence regarding increased productivity, lower costs, and better returns.

The other reason is that European CIOs, like their American counterparts, would rather use more of what they already have then embark on entirely new applications and technologies. While Web services will require some new technology — a services architecture needs to be in place to fully support the next generation of applications — most of these CIOs realize they don’t have to implement an entirely new architecture. The ability of Web services applications to leverage existing applications and processes can be mirrored in the ability of services architectures to leverage existing third-party applications infrastructure components. It’s a rare win/win that spans the business and technology sides of the enterprise.

I think one of the reasons these CIOs are relatively so well along in their plans is that they are focusing on the advantages of the next generation of Web services applications and are a little less concerned about the specific services architecture technology they need to deploy. Indeed, this has lead to some CIO empowerment in the Web services movement. These CIOs all said that their business managers — many of whom are calling the shots regarding new applications — were keeping their hands out of the infrastructure decisions needed to make the shift to supporting Web services. The business case for the new generation of applications is enough for business management to leave technology decisions to the CIO.

There’s an important lesson to be learned from a European market that suddenly looks like a leader instead of a follower. Web services are more than hype, they’re good for business and good for technologists as well. In a market driven by tight-fisted economic arguments, Web services are passing the hardest test of all. If a savvy group of Euro-execs can give Web services the nod in a world rife with economic uncertainty and technological confusion, then it’s time to declare that Web services-based applications have really arrived. They may even be here to stay.

Joshua Greenbaum is a principal with Enterprise Applications Consulting, a technology and marketing consultancy in Daly City, Calif.

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