The Struggle Between Flexibility and Standardization

By | 2010/09/21

Recently I’ve seen many articles discussing the issue of tech-savvy users and their impact on the future role of the corporate IT/IS department. After all, why require an IT department, when users will simply implement and support their own gadgets? This is a valid argument, but it’s not new. Over the past 30 years working in IT, I’ve seen this topic played out over and over. It’s the classic struggle between flexibility (to do what we want) and standardization (through IT, corporate, or industry).

I’ve found that almost any type of IT project can be loosely categorized into two types: 1) Fast and Flexible, or 2) Slow and Standardized.

Data Integration with Enterprise System

Data Integration with Enterprise Standardization

To illustrate, let’s consider data integration type projects. For the past 15 years, I’ve worked for an order fulfillment company. Order fulfillment is all about accepting orders – in any format. Decades ago, the formats were:  phone/fax/email. Today they’re:  EDI/XML/delimited transactions.

We take data in any format, and import it into our order processing/inventory control system. We also export data for feeds back into client manufacturing, accounting, and reporting systems. We’ve worked with data from eCommerce systems like Amazon, Yahoo, Volusion, and HSN, as well as JD Edwards, Siebel CRM, SQL/MySQL, Access, and blackbox systems. As a result, we’ve become somewhat adept at slinging data around.

Within IT, flexibility is critical. We want IT departments to look for solutions that meet the needs of our clients and users. But often, flexibility is incompatible with standardization. This is made even more difficult when you need flexibility to support dozens of clients, each residing in a different industry with differing data requirements, which is the challenge faced by order fulfillment companies.

Project team data feeds

Project team data feeds can get messy

Our attempt at standardization started in 1998, when we created our APIs. Our “standard” set of APIs includes order transaction, order status, and inventory inquiry. These web service APIs are available to our clients for use on their own web sites, or as a component of their enterprise applications.

Most clients are delighted to know we have a set of APIs available. They are delighted, but that doesn’t mean their IT department can accommodate.

Surprisingly, our largest clients — Fortune 500 companies — often implement solutions that go around the standardization they already have in place. Why? Because the effort required to interface using their enterprise system may cost more and/or take longer than a Fast & Flexible alternative.

Increasingly, our client contacts are choosing to work around their IT departments, rather than standardizing through IT. I have a related article, The Scary Realities of Web Data that discusses some of the security issues, so I won’t cover security here.  However, IT departments today face a huge challenge — they must respond to requests quickly, while also maintaining an appropriate level of standardization and security.

If the response isn’t fast, today’s end-users are tech-savvy enough to simply work around IT (and drop any standardization that may exist). For example, as head of marketing for your corporate product, why work through your own IT department when you can simply have your web vendor send order data directly to your order fulfillment vendor?

This is the type of project I see on a weekly basis, with customer data completely bypassing the corporation (the security of the data often isn’t considered at all).

It’s a dilemma.  If a standard is dictated, then we lose some sense of freedom to choose. Yet without standards, we have chaos. The X12 document list contains standards for “order series” transactions, but in 15 years of implementing order-type data transfers, I’ve had only one request to use these standards.

Web services may be a long-range answer, but most of the large corporations I work with are unable to quickly implement web service solutions.

There are several possible solutions. First, if IT departments wish to stay relevant, they need to turn around projects quickly and at a competitive price. But quick turn-around is hard to do if the entire IT infrastructure is outsourced.

Another solution is an IT-business liaison operating as a resource to the corporation users. This role requires  someone who truly understands the technical scope to assist during meetings with vendors and identify the best solution for the corporation. Without this perspective, the ‘owner’ of the project will pick the fast & flexible alternative every time.

Finally, it is important that everyone in the organization has an appreciation for the value of data (through training and education).

Are these realistic goals? What solutions have you seen work?

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