Cringely’s Law, named for former InfoWorld columnist and author Robert X. Cringely, says that technology changes far less in the short term than we expect but that it has a far greater impact in the long term than we realize. That observation can certainly be applied to Web services technology, and it could also be applied to how Web services will change the consulting landscape, according to Brent Sleeper, a consultant and partner with The Stencil Group.

After a year of hype and high hopes, Web services technologies are being used for grass-roots-type projects and small implementations that solve long-standing problems, Sleeper said. The emerging Web services market will affect the consulting industry, especially in terms of the type of work consultants are asked to provide. The promises of cheaper solutions that allow extreme agility between systems will eventually become a reality. And the greatest innovations will likely come from a handful of small, pioneering software firms.

Sleeper has three suggestions for how consulting firms should prepare for the market changes Web services will bring:

  1. Start experimenting with today’s Web services capabilities.
  2. Continue to invest in developing your firm’s strategic business expertise.
  3. Aggressively pursue relationships with up-and-coming software vendors.

In an interview with Sleeper, I got the rationale behind his counsel and his thoughts on which software companies will be the innovators.

Get your hands dirty: Use today’s Web services technology
Despite the fact that the technology is at an extremely early stage in its development, it’s critical for consultants to actively experiment with Web services technologies, Sleeper said.

“There are still a lot of missing pieces, but I think getting some hands-on experience with what works and what doesn’t is a benefit whenever there’s a technology change,” he said.

And while there may be a gap between what customers expect and what Web services technology can deliver, for the most part customers have realistic expectations and see their initial implementation as the first step in an incremental, gradual rollout.

Examples of current projects
Sleeper said he’s seeing small-scale pilot projects that utilize Web services and demonstrate the technology’s efficacy, as opposed to the replacement of entire systems.

As part of The Stencil Group’s Web services market research and analysis, Sleeper has interviewed project teams at several organizations engaging in early Web services implementations. The kinds of projects he’s seen fall into two categories:

  • Those that solve specific technical challenges that have been nagging problems
  • Those that deal with the automated integration between large organizations and their smaller trading partners

As an example of the first scenario, Sleeper mentioned “a financial services company focused on individual investors” in San Francisco that’s using both BEA WebLogic and IBM WebSphere application servers for back-end database information and transactions. Integrating systems running on those two platforms can be a challenge, Sleeper said, so the organization has used simple Web services communication protocols to bridge the gap.

“Using SOAP to connect those systems and pass data back and forth is kind of a mundane [Web services] application, but it’s also solving a real problem today,” Sleeper said. “The organization sees that as a building block for assembling more sophisticated systems on top of the basic communications protocols.”

As an example of an automated integration project, Sleeper pointed to Eastman Chemical Company, a chemical manufacturer with many small trading partners. The company is developing a Web-services-based solution that automates some transactions between the organizations. Sleeper said the approach is a low-cost way to achieve some of the benefits they might have with a larger-scale system from such well-known integration solution vendors as webMethods, TIBCO, or Vitria.

Developing your firm’s business and industry expertise
From a more strategic perspective, Sleeper advised that firms—especially those for which integration work has been a mainstay—should invest in developing their consultants’ knowledge of specific industries and how to apply technology to business processes.

“I think the day of pure technology consulting is on the way out, if it’s not already passed,” Sleeper said. “When IT organizations look to consultants for help, it’s as much for their strategic business expertise as it is for skills with any particular technology.”

As the use of Web services technologies eliminates the need for the nuts and bolts aspects of integration services, businesses simply aren’t going to be willing to pay as much for them, Sleeper said. So, while technical skills are always important, pragmatic business strategy will become more valuable. However, this doesn’t spell an end to integration work, as some have suggested. Sleeper contends that integration will simply become less a part of the consultant’s job.

“The folks that claim that this is the death of systems-integration-type consulting are really making an overblown claim,” Sleeper said. He believes that integration work will become more focused on how to apply technologies to business process design rather than just getting data from point A to point B.

Develop associations with up-and-coming software vendors
Sleeper also suggested that consultants should establish relationships with software vendors that are aggressively developing technologies in the Web services arena. He recommended finding a smaller, emerging firm instead of forging a relationship with an established firm.

“If you look at tech innovation in the past, it’s almost always started in the periphery with smaller companies who have an idea, bring it to market, and it gradually spreads out among larger vendors,” Sleeper said. “One major reason for that, to make a blanket generalization, is that people in [established] companies generally solve problems that they already know about, and they do the things they know how to do.”

For example, companies like IBM, BEA, and Oracle are developing Web services strategies based on the products they have on the market and the way they’ve traditionally solved problems, Sleeper said. While those types of solutions have value, the most groundbreaking work will more likely take place, for example, in companies of 50 people or fewer who have a technical vision they’re trying to bring to market.

Another reason Sleeper believes in creating ties with smaller organizations is the creation of a new software niche. The hope for Web services innovations is that they will create better interoperability among systems and support a diverse set of technologies within organizations. Better interoperability, however, will mean that information and processes will be running across multiple systems, none of which will be able to provide a way to manage all those interactions and provide a good view of all the data.

That’s where the software innovators will come into play, Sleeper said. Because major platform vendors’ products, by their very nature, won’t do a good job of manufacturing interactions with other products, neutral intermediaries will have an opportunity to play that role.

“A lot of the most promising startup companies are very explicitly focused on that challenge of managing and mediating the infrastructure,” Sleeper said.

Among the star performers, Sleeper mentioned Blue Titan, Talking Blocks, AmberPoint, Infravio, and Grand Central, which is an ASP that may provide similar benefits.

“Those small software companies are looking to consultants and systems integrators as a major way of delivering their technology to customers,” Sleeper said. “I think consultants can get a lot of benefit from actively pursuing the early-stage innovators and developing some expertise in these solutions today before everyone else does.”

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