June 27, 2006

Speaking at the SIA conference held last week in New York, Carol Dow, principal in corporate technology services at The Vanguard Group, explained that, as a business-driven approach to technology, service-oriented architecture (SOA) allows companies to innovate by ensuring that their IT systems can adapt quickly, easily and economically to support rapidly changing business needs. While the SOA concept is not new, the software that supports it is becoming more robust and was a major driver behind its popularity at this year's SIA show. And many financial services firms are implementing SOA in order to boost customer-centric capabilities.

Dow says a customer-centric attitude permeates the entire culture at her client-owned firm. "Being consistently better than competitors on investment returns, understanding and providing services that our clients desire, and being easy to deal with all ties into our SOA philosophy," says Dow.

According to Dow, SOA enables Vanguard's customer-centric approach because it encourages the use of technology to automate services that are based on business process. "It streamlines the customer service experience," says Dow. "A lot of times in companies you'll find multiple departmental boundaries. With SOA, instead of focusing on the department you're focusing on the end-to-end process."

SOA also helps speed to market while reducing costs through the promotion of reuseable services, adds Dow. Further, reusing familiar IT tools boosts quality because it provides more-predictable results. "You're not redeveloping it five times," explains Dow.

By reusing existing technologies through an SOA framework, companies such as The Vanguard Group mitigate a tremendous amount of IT risk, according to Chip Gore, senior sales engineer, InterSystems Corp. "SOA allows you to slide your technology forward without having to flip a switch to make a big change."

While Vanguard's Dow declines to reveal the technology firms with which her company has partnered for its SOA needs, she says Web services and XML are key technologies currently being utilized at the firm. "This is not a new concept," Dow continues. "But what has changed is the technology. Web services, XML, more common standards - that's what enables IT to adopt the approach that always makes sense."

Dow says Vanguard currently is in the process of developing SOA metrics around productivity as it relates to speed to market. "Once services are developed, what is their reuse?" she asks. "We're currently measuring these items to figure it out."

There are basic cornerstones that financial service firms should heed in order to become truly customer centric, according to David B. Holtzman, managing director, financial service advisory, PricewaterhouseCoopers. "It entails providing the capability to understand your customers' financial service needs across product lines and meet those needs with enough consistency and precision to create long-term loyalty and trust with the customer," he says. "A true customer-centric organization will be able to provide more-effective sales and service with a reduction of risks and costs. If a financial institution really knows their customers, they can then proactively manage and grow that customer relationship, which will drive top-line and bottom-line growth."

Holtzman says that a sound SOA strategy helps financial firms become more customer centric because SOA automates and optimizes long-lived complex business workflows, which helps avoid customer issues across lines of business and multiple products. "And by using SOA, customer data consolidation and business analytics, financial firms are able to predict in real time the selling of the next best products to its existing customers."

Bharath Rangarajan, director of product marketing for GemStone, a distributed operational data infrastructure provider, also sees the relationship between SOA, customer centricity and driving top-line growth. "Driving top-line growth is obviously the ultimate goal for any company and it is the CEO's promise to a firm's stakeholders."

"A customer-centric strategy serves as a means to the end goal of top-line growth and overall corporate success," says Rangarajan. "SOA brings about an IT lifestyle change and necessitates a new way of thinking about technology systems, business processes and the relationship between the two. The benefits of SOA impact not only top-line growth, but also impact the bottom line and, more specifically, cost of ownership."

"SOA is definitely raising a lot of discussion at this year's SIA show," relates Giacomo Lorenzin, president and CEO, HiT Software. "Everyone is trying to use it, although I am not sure if too many companies are actually deploying it."

Lorenzin says many tech vendors, including his own, offer some type of SOA capabilities that are primarily being utilized by larger financial services firms. "Smaller firms obviously don't have the same amount of resources as the larger firms. However, they are definitely making SOA a near-future initiative," he says.