Managing E-Business Changes

Developers managing changes to e-business applications face far greater challenges than those in other development environments. These highly complex applications affect revenue, profitability and numerous front- and back-office systems. In addition, e-business applications are often poorly designed and require frequent modification by employees throughout an organization due to the need for fast time-to-market.

This can greatly increase the risk of outages on systems whose failure can wreak havoc on an organization. Projects can be overwritten by development teams, lost changes can lead to significant reworking, and an inability to track change requests or defects can often lead to an application being rewritten. E-business system downtime not only affects employees, it impacts suppliers and partners, resulting in lost revenue and customers.

That is why, according to a Giga Information Group paper dated April 26, 2000, e-businesses and IT organizations are outsourcing their Internet-based architectures to consultants with strong but flexible methodologies. The systems can be readily integrated into an overall network instead of burdening existing staff with an issue for which developers might not have specific training.

IT organizations and application service providers (ASPs) wishing to accommodate rapid change and to maintain reliability to meet or exceed expected Service Level Agreements (SLAs) need a way to better manage the effects of change on their e-business systems. A change management for Internet infrastructure, developed using a structured methodology involving a five-step process, allows IT organizations and ASPs to map all of the critical dependencies between applications and to better manage the change process.

Change management—the process of identifying, tracking, refining and deploying changes to a given system—has become increasingly difficult over time. The advent of introducing new applications, changes and enhancements into highly integrated business processes in Web time and with 24x7 reliability has shortened the time available in the production cycle, creating more potential points of failure.

To make matters worse, organizations attempting quick deployment of e-business operations often forgo formal development processes, giving short shrift to architecture, design and code documentation. Such poor design means that many e-business systems are less stable than those systems developed in a more systematic fashion.

Finally, more people than ever throughout various organizations are making potentially significant changes to these systems. An e-commerce system might tie together Web-based storefront systems with back-office order entry, inventory and shipping systems. Even in cases where the business-to-consumer (B2C) or business-to-business (B2B) front-end systems are not yet fully integrated with the core transactional systems for the enterprise, changes to the front end will still affect back-office processes.

What this means is that developers must utilize good discipline and communication skills, not just technical smarts, to meet the needs of a variety of groups throughout the firm. Those skills are necessary particularly when a company requires an improved help desk, new source code or a more efficient IT department.

For instance, a large, New York-based electronics distribution company needed an improved IT Department Help Desk, a six-person group that had been using manual tickers to separate and count the number of calls—about 300 or 400—they received daily. The change management process started with an assessment of the need, which included a workflow review and survey of those involved, and then moved onto testing and training, starting with a simple tracking platform.

In another example, a nationwide brokerage firm wanted to update its Web site to become more interactive with users. At one point during the project, the company switched to CVS as a new source code. Developers responded by modifying existing processes to fit within the new code. The scripting involved using CVS as a code-management tool, then going to TeamSite/Open Deploy, an Interwoven application, to manage the build-production-deployment process.

In the final example, a northeast U.S. utility based changes in its IT department on a maturity model to improve efficiency. An assessment found inconsistent release-naming conventions, as well as the need for an overall planning template and the ability to track changes. The utility had pre-selected Rational Software's ClearCase, but developers trained workers to maximize the application as part of a rollout program.

Because e-business systems interface directly with customers and others outside the organization, it is even more important for these outwardly facing systems to remain operational than it is for systems designed strictly for internal users. In many Web-only businesses, the Web site is the business. If the site goes down, the entire business shuts down. Even when customers have other methods of contacting the organization, the way to develop loyalty is to ensure that sites are highly available to customers who wish to do business over that channel—or you risk losing impatient Web customers to more reliable competitors.

SLAs mandate accountability
Because of the urgent need to keep Web sites up and running, business line units are increasingly demanding that their IT organizations—whether they are internal, outsourced to systems integrators, or hosted by an application service provider—guarantee 24x7 availability on the operation of the infrastructure and apps. SLAs are the means by which companies formalize their service offerings and guarantee quality of service.

While the use of SLAs was just a glimmer on the horizon even a year ago, IT organizations today are increasingly putting them in place. In an ASP environment, SLAs are particularly critical because the ability to turn around changes and keep systems operational is a key competitive differentiation—particularly for young organizations with no proven track record.

The best way developers and ASPs can provide the level of service today's e-businesses require, and still meet their SLAs, is to avoid outages in the first place. One analyst firm has reported that application modification problems are a leading source of outages. And one of the best ways to prevent problems is through the use of a change management solution.

The industry's recognition of this need is evidenced by the rapid growth in the market for change management solutions, which reached $400 million in 1998 and is expected to grow 35 percent over the next three years, according to industry estimates (Information Week, Feb. 22, 1999).

But with the new demands placed on IT infrastructures as a result of the e-business boom, developers need to take a new approach to managing change. In the past, developers have used a haphazard and manual approach. While some IT organizations purchased tools such as configuration tools, Web content tools and so on to address change management issues, they often underutilized them or used them in isolation from other systems within the organization. But this is not just a tool issue; many issues surround people and processes to effect change.

As a result, organizations were unable to track the impact of a change in one system to related systems throughout the organization. That meant that a change in one system could cause problems in an entirely different system. It is this lack of system stability, reliability, quality and consistency that has caused so many problems for e-business systems.

When glitches occurred during the change process, the offending change had to be identified, rolled back, modified and reinserted into the system—not an easy proposition in integrated systems where it was difficult to identify exactly which individual system was causing the problem. As a result, the process of repairing glitches could take anywhere from minutes to days, weeks or months. This time frame is simply not acceptable in an e-business environment.

And older methods of change management become particularly problematic in modern e-business systems, where large numbers of people are involved in system modifications.

A change management infrastructure
What organizations using e-business solutions need is a change management infrastructure that gives a complete, 360-degree view of all of the implications of every change throughout the entire e-business system. With such a system, organizations can easily understand the dependencies between systems. The system must also provide an automated process that ensures that changes are deployed properly throughout the entire, integrated e-business solution. These solutions need to address change management for both data and content, as well as to front-end and back-end systems.

According to the Boston-based Aberdeen Group, a change management infrastructure for e-business apps must:

  • Link the various e-business application code and content suppliers into a synchronized process;
  • Manage the distributed nature of the application and its required changes;
  • Integrate existing change management systems;
  • Deliver all of the auditing, tracking and version control necessary for any change request management system;
  • Link the customer through customer support to the change process for improved customer satisfaction; and
  • Offer a modeling tool to assess changes and their impact before the changes are deployed.

With such a change management system in place, organizations can deploy highly available applications in a distributed environment, support frequent updating and modifying of the code to refresh content, and address changing content and functionality requirements.

Because of the distributed nature of e-business apps, a change management infrastructure must track, merge and execute changes across multiple machines and platforms. To create an all-inclusive change management solution to accommodate these heterogeneous systems, a firm needs to have a complete understanding of all the business processes each change will touch. It must then capture all of the critical dependencies between the integrated systems involved in the process.

If an organization wishes to develop an automated change management solution, it will need a business rules engine that directs the change management systems the organization may already have in place, as well as any new ones. It will also need to provide a unified business process that tracks changes as they flow from one component of the system to the next to ensure that changes are made consistently. Any developer creating a solution will need to be able to look at change from the customer, production and deployment perspectives, and be able to understand how the data, content and code create dependencies across each area.

To develop a change management solution that provides all of these capabilities, organizations should consider a five-step process. These steps include:

  1. Requirements gathering and analysis. E-business systems are highly complex and individualized. The developer of a change management solution needs to understand the firm's short- and long-term objectives, and the customer's existing e-business environment. Only with this information is it possible to develop a customized, customer-centric solution.
  2. Recommendations. Once an organization thoroughly understands all the existing processes, the vendor can make recommendations about the people, processes and technology necessary to meet the customer's objectives.
  3. Evaluate tools and technologies. The organization should evaluate which tools and technologies are required based on the process requirements outlined in the previous steps.
  4. Implementation. The firm can then implement the new change management process using the selected technologies.
  5. Training. The organization can then create a training program to make users throughout the organization aware of the process, making it easier for employees to adopt the new methodology.

As organizations continue to increase their use of e-business systems to manage mission-critical processes, they need to make sure that these systems can keep pace with their changing needs and do so in a manner that meets or exceeds expected SLAs for customers. An integrated change management infrastructure that tracks the effect of every change on every related system throughout the business process, and that manages the application of changes to the entire process, will ensure that the e-business system will continue to meet increasingly competitive demands.