Does your organization find that it can develop a new product faster than your IT group can create a new application to manage it?  Are your existing systems too inflexible?

No, these are not just the opening lines of a sales pitch aimed at selling you the latest IT package or platform. They reflect critical business drivers and challenges.

Today’s businesses are under ever-increasing pressure to deliver more value for less effort.  In the current fast–paced information economy, core business factors are in flux including regulations, customer expectations, business models and offerings and emerging possibilities driven by enabling technologies:

  • Business now operates in a global, online economy, driven by the web
  • Mergers, acquisitions and reorganizations occur frequently and rapidly, both nationally and internationally
  • There are growing expectations about what technology should do for companies and end-users:
    • High demand for custom business products/services requires applications to be more flexible.
    • Users expect to be able to find, analyze and visualize information from disparate sources – instantly.
  • Economic pressures are forcing companies to do more with less and find ways, including adopting new technologies, to cut costs while increasing efficiency and productivity. 
  • Similar pressures are compelling companies to do less with less  — that is to focus on just the right collection of data, make the right key decisions early to eliminate alternative paths. 

21st century market dynamics demand that enterprises become more agile and responsive in order to survive.  Enterprises must not only accept change but embrace and actively manage it as a positive, integral part of their infrastructure.  A new key differentiator is emerging – an enterprise’s ability to establish a new technology foundation and approach for managing change and accelerating time-to-value. But the gap to achieving this is large.

Long IT cycles don’t cut it when it’s all about agility and responsiveness.  The adaptability of business applications to changing needs has become a bottleneck for successful business growth in a number of sectors. Executives in every industry are telling their IT managers that applications must respond more quickly to changing business needs. Packaged applications and rigid architectures make it difficult to access critical information and limit timely response to market opportunities and challenges.

A central problem for IT is that today’s applications are built to standardize core business functions and not designed to be changed easily or quickly.  They often force people to be the glue in mapping silos of information and business processing functions to their tasks.  Too often, they force IT into a reactive, and sometimes defensive, posture when responding to the changing requirements of business users.  

Business users need greater flexibility and freedom in order to respond to evolving markets, policies, regulations and business models — and most importantly, to turn ideas into actionable innovation for the business.  Business users need capabilities to create and modify applications without relying on IT to do all of the work – adaptable applications that can be evolved in real time to new situations, where data can be brought together from a variety of data sources from both inside and outside the enterprise.

’The Dynamic Business Applications Imperative’

Fortunately, developments are under way and an emerging trend that has been well articulated, with great potential to address these issues.  Forrester Research calls this trend The Dynamic Business Applications Imperative and argues that it is a top-priority for businesses in the next 5 years (full report is available for download here).  Dynamic Business Applications — applications that can be introduced and adapted quickly to new business situations are described as: “A software system that embodies a business process and is built for change, adaptable to business context, and information rich.”

Other sources elaborate the description:

“Dynamic Business Applications are applications where you can change business rules or change the front-end extremely rapidly – in a couple of hours or a couple of days.” 1

“Dynamic Business Applications are built to support a rapidly changing business world. Rather than traditional applications that support requirements at a point in time (not built for change), Dynamic Business Applications anticipate and easily accommodate change. One characteristic of Dynamic Business Applications is that, in contrast to monolithic applications, they are comprised of application components that improve agility and encourage reuse.” 2

It is our experience that semantic web technology offers a powerful way to build Dynamic Business Applications and realize many of their associated goals.  A compelling tag line from the Forrester report equates dynamic business applications with a new class of applications that are ‘designed for people’ and ‘built for change.’  To operationalize these ideas, our company is being driven by needs and requests from customers to deliver semantic model-driven applications that are context-aware, self-explaining and can change dynamically without programming – primarily by changing models.  Other requirements for these types of applications include:

  • They must be built to work the way that business users perform their tasks.
  • Integration of data from disparate internal/external sources and various formats should be a routine task.
  • Applications should be ‘smarter’ and must remain relevant and easily adaptable to business changes by requiring less human effort to configure, operate and change.
  • Users can readily customize applications themselves by updating models, changing their user interface and mashing up data from disparate sources.

The Forrester report does not reference semantic web technologies – it cites other enabling technologies, primarily business process engines, business rules and SOA.  But the report makes it clear that the need for and promise of dynamic business applications is not defined by specific technologies, though having the right enabling technologies as a foundation is obviously critical.   Also noted is the expectation that dynamic business applications will come in many forms during the early stage of their emergence and may be supported by other emerging technologies and/or unanticipated synergies or convergences of technologies.

Semantic Web Technology and Dynamic Business Applications

In February, 2009, my colleague, Dean Allemang, and I spoke with the principal authors of the report, John R. Rymer and Connie Moore.  The outcome of the briefing and subsequent discussions is that they agree that semantic web technology has capabilities that align with the vision and goals articulated for dynamic business applications

There are many dimensions in which the fundamental capabilities of semantic web technology can be examined, evaluated and advocated against the capabilities needed for supporting dynamic business applications.  This column focuses on one key linkage:  the capability of semantic model-driven applications to enable business users to participate in creation and evolution of their own applications.  We call effect of this kind of enablement ‘creativity at the edge’.   Why is it so important and how does it link to the critical drivers described earlier?  By giving end users a greater role in application development and customization, dynamic business applications enable new dimensions of agility and process optimization that support competitive advantage and productivity.

Creativity at the Edge

During late 2005 and early 2006, I took part in the team that provided analysis and recommendations for the future of the Veterans Health Administration’s ‘VistA’ (Veterans Health Information System and Technology Architecture) electronic health care system.  We conducted onsite visits at dozens of major medical centers, clinics and IT support centers, observed and interviewed a wide range of medical staff in their work environment and their active, everyday use of the system in Clinical, Clinical Admin, and Hospital Management tasks.  

The history and future of VistA and the results of our study are too complex a story to treat here – there are both significant pluses and minuses to relate.  However, the overwhelming consensus is that it remains the largest, most successful deployment of an integrated, online healthcare system in the US with the most extensive, longitudinal individual electronic patient records.  Just in terms of sheer scale the system is unique and impressive: VistA systems and electronic health records are in operation and intensive daily use at sites of care including 150+ medical centers, 800+ clinics, and serving 4.5M veteran users / patients.

One of the passionate views that emerged again and again in our interviews was that the system ultimately succeeded and continues to work well for many of its users because there are so many clinical applications in it built by users themselves (or in which they had direct participation in the implementation development and evolution through use).  During one of our discussions, someone captured this well by saying that the system is a core part of the success of healthcare delivery at VHA because it encourages ‘creativity at the edge.’  This phrase stuck with me, and aligns well with some of the central goals and means now ascribed to the trend ‘dynamic business applications’.  

Dr. Robert Kolodner, who was deeply involved with VistA over many years, became the VHA’s Chief Health Informatics officer (CHIO), and is currently HSS’s National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (and who many consider to be the father of health IT interoperability) said this about the importance of user involvement in VistA application development:

“ … VHA physicians have not only fully embraced VistA, they’re committed to participating in its improvement and continued evolution. Then again, VHA physicians have been involved in the vision, development, and use of IT in the delivery of care from day one more than 25 years ago, making it more a pioneer in the field of health informatics than an early adopter. Its engagement and partnership with physicians and other clinicians from concept through implementation and improvement of its electronic information infrastructure also belongs among the most critical aspects of the VHA’s rebirth and continued success with VistA.  … We’re always improving the system for clinicians … and those improvements are typically clinician-driven and accomplished with their strong participation.” 3

In July 2006 the VA won an Innovation in American Government Awards for VistA, citing its model system of electronic health records, developed with extensive involvement of front-line health-care providers.   In his presentation, Toward The Intelligent Electronic Health Record – The VA experience, Dr. ‘Hank’ Rappaport, described two key advantages of VistA: it was “designed by end-users, for end-users”, and the implementation approach centered on “local flexibility for development and configuration”, which was incrementally and iteratively accomplished closely involving “Clinical Application Coordinators.”

The VHA’s VistA achievement is an excellent example of direct user involvement in the creation of their applications.  This in turn is perhaps the most critical motivator and capability ascribed to dynamic business applications: giving the people who define the business or enterprise more freedom and real-time power to turn business ideas into innovation (i.e., ‘creativity at the edge.’).

Beyond technical capabilities, there may be serious social, political, cultural, and management challenges to the proposed expansion of end users participation in the creation and modification of their own applications—for example, the challenges of balancing creativity with governance and agility with control.  However, despite such challenges or tradeoffs, the reality that some form of dynamic business applications will become well established and officially supported within the enterprise is inevitable.  The broader business world is clamoring for it.

Part II of the column will be published here during the week of November 9, 2009.  It will discuss the future role of IT, and specifically, how Semantic Web Technology can enable Dynamic Business Applications in the enterprise.

_______________________________

1 http://blog.outsystems.com/aboutagility/2009/04/dynamic-business-applications-and-insurance.html
2 http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/tech-manager/?p=470
3 As quoted in "Not Your Father’s VHA"

http://www.fortherecordmag.com/archives/ftr_10302006p10.shtml