Michael Vizard: Ontologists, Web services and revenge of the systems analyst

One of the articles of faith in our industry is Metcalfe’s Law, which asserts that the value of a network increases exponentially with the number of nodes on the network. The corollary of that law is also true for business: the value of a business is determined by the number of interactions that take place across the sphere of the business environment.

In both cases, the secret to success is volume. But unlike a network, where software manages the interactions between different nodes, there is little software today to manage the interactions of an extended set of business processes. That may soon change for the better. On the technical front, Web services will provide a set of standards for application integration. Rather than treating each requirement for an application integration project as separate, you can make use of an industry standard approach to multipoint integration.

On the business side of that equation, there will be a standard infrastructure for orchestrating business processes. Business process management is the most challenging, rewarding, and vexing thing that IT does. It is also one thing at which IT is least successful.

By themselves, Web services do very little to facilitate business process integration. But they provide a set of protocols to make the task significantly easier because IT can now concentrate on actually integrating the business processes, rather than just trying to link two applications on a point-to-point basis.

Web services also mean we can link a new generation of business process management tools to reusable software components that make up the business process. As a result, we are beginning to see tools from companies such as AltoWeb and iBusinessHub that will leverage Web-services-enabled app servers. And major players such as IBM Corp. (which recently moved to acquire CrossWorlds Software Inc.), BEA Systems Inc., Oracle Corp., Webgain Inc., and Microsoft Corp. will all enhance their wares to include new business process management tools that are integrated with their application-server environments.

What’s exciting is that tools used by business systems analysts will be integrated with those used by application developers. Business analysts will be able to leverage the work of application developers to integrate applications by linking components of software.

But most IT organizations are completely unprepared. IT organizations have blurred data and business process logic to the point where they can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. That’s why, in the short term, the best thing to do is hire people who have studied ontology, which Webster’s defines as “a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relationships of being.”

Alas, there seems to be an inexplicable shortage of ontologists in IT these days. No matter – chances are, if you have people in your IT organization over the age of 45, you have the next best thing: a former COBOL systems analyst. In one of those ironic twists of fate, it turns out that these people specialize in figuring out how to break down business systems into discrete logical components.

So what’s old is new again. And I suggest you make an offer sometime in the next 90 minutes to a COBOL systems analyst that he or she can’t refuse. After all, it’s only going to get more expensive the longer you wait.

Michael Vizard is editor in chief of InfoWorld and InfoWorld.com. Contact him at michael_vizard@infoworld.com.