The potential benefits of SOA in the enterprise can be great, including reduced cost, better business efficiency and agility, and perhaps most importantly-a much better customer experience. Unum, one of the companies I have recently become acquainted with, saw the opportunity to transform and improve the customer experience and streamline back office operations at the same time. Two years ago, Unum (formerly UnumProvident) embarked on an effort to do just that. They call this ongoing effort Simply Unum and it has begun to bear fruit.

Naturally, the technology and architectural changes needed to empower this kind of business transformation are a lot to get your arms around. Unum faced many of the classic challenges associated with taking tightly-coupled, product-centric systems, organized in silos by lines-of business and transforming them into loosely-coupled, customer-centric set of services and automated business processes. As you can guess, change of this magnitude is never simple, quick or easy. The costs and risks can be substantial. To be successful, I think service-orientation requires a fundamental cultural shift at all levels of the business -Unum definitely seems to have it going on.

The good news is that Tim Fitzgerald and Keith Stackhouse, two members of the architecture team at Unum, are willing to tell us a bit about what they are doing and how they are doing it. They will be presenting at the upcoming 6th Annual Microsoft Financial Services Developer Conference. The technical team is currently in the process of assessing their existing SOA capabilities and defining the future architectural roadmap on this basis. One of the conceptual tools Unum will be using for this assessment is the SOA maturity model (SOAMM). Regardless of whether you are just getting your feet wet with SOA or whether you well on your way and facing some of the service management issues that come with a more mature catalog of services, I think you will find this presentation well worth your while.

As a tool, SOAMM can play different roles depending upon how far along the road to SOA you are at the moment. In the early stages it can provide a vital roadmap to maturity; later on it can provide a valuable assessment tool.  There are other maturity models out there, but most seem to share a focus on capabilities. In SOAMM, for example, extensibility, supportability, repeatability and reusability are measured to determine where good maturity has been reached and where there is more work to be done. To me, however, these technical capabilities-though very important-are really secondary.

Traceability is the master capability and the gold standard of maturity. At the end of the day, all technical capabilities must be directly traceable to specific business needs and capabilities.  The best measure of maturity for SOA is the extent to which the technical capabilities of SOA empower the business. That's what impresses me about Unum; they took this approach from the start. The business sponsors and the technical team have strong alignment on the ultimate objectives of Simply Unum: making it easier for customers to do business with them. I'm looking forward to learning more about how they have achieved success so far and how they plan to continue their success in the future.

In case I haven't made myself clear, I am indeed saying that SOA can enable better customer relationships and better customer experience (UX)-when it's done well. The whizz-bang features in WPF are great, but it doesn't have a monopoly on UX. Very often, services turn out to be a vital organ for great UX. The folks at Unum seem to really get this. My first acquaintance at Unum was Rick Klausner. Rick's official title there is VP of Customer Capabilities and Enterprise Architecture. That's a big title and a big responsibility, but I also think its emblematic of the whole approach for Simply Unum. Customer capabilities first, enterprise architecture second; but the two linked at the hip. When the latter is traceable to the former, you have a good formula for success.

If you can make it to the Developers Conference, I think this is a session you won't want to miss.