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Aetna Dumps Its Siloed Enterprise Architure for SOA

Why do so many enterprise architecture (EA) attempts fail to take hold? Too many IT organizations forget about the E in EA.

For enterprise architecture to yield transformation, it has to start with the business. "Too many [enterprise architecture efforts] take a bottom-up or sideways-in approach. It has to be driven from the top," says Michael Mathias, vice president and CIO of insurance provider Aetna. "It's not a technology initiative. It's a business commitment."

Mathias knew a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach could streamline the 159-year-old company's operations, improve customer service and increase IT agility. It could also create a common experience for all customers and enable information sharing across all lines of business.

But in an era of quick wins and rapid returns, he knew getting the business and IT to persevere through a long-term project would be difficult. So first he sold the CEO and CFO on a three-year plan with significant returns and increased speed to market.

The project began in 2009 as the new EA group developed a business capability map that spanned the company's previously siloed business units. "That drove us toward what services to target and what would cut the most costs," Mathias explains. Services that could be used by the most business units and customers were created first: for example, those pertaining to plan eligibility or cost of services, which would be accessed by all members, providers and plan sponsors.

The most difficult part wasn't identifying where to start, but finding IT professionals with the skills to get the job done. The EA group now accounts for 150 of Aetna's 3,000-person IT shop, but it was difficult to staff.

"We had to look for architects who could take a holistic view of the enterprise. We needed programmers skilled in this new way of building and testing applications," says Mathias. "Those roles are all difficult to fill."

Mathias and his IT leadership team are searching beyond veterans in the field, including scouring the retail industry for expertise. "With the commercializing of IT, healthcare is really more of an individual retail play today," he explains. "We need to understand how to work with the individual."

Beyond staffing, Mathias says it was a challenge to stay on course, especially the first year. "There were skeptics everywhere," he says. "It was a major shift in how we approached developing applications and capabilities. It took a while to get everyone on board."

Where before the expectation was that newly built code could be reused by one or two applications, now it's reused by as many as eight. "We're seeing greater and greater reuse as we go through the application portfolio," Mathias says.

To maintain momentum, Mathias marketed IT's quarterly SOA results to the rest of the company. By the end of the three-year plan, IT had surpassed its cost-avoidance goals, delivering more than $50 million in savings.

"We overachieved because we took a holistic enterprise approach to architecture. That gave us a very clear lens on where the richest opportunities were--the higher-use areas, the higher-leverage areas."

The work continued into a fourth year and beyond, to the point where it's now just business as usual at Aetna. "The three-year plan was the justification for the business. That was Services 1.0," says Mathias. "This is part of our DNA now."

Read more about business intelligence (bi) in CIO's Business Intelligence (BI) Drilldown.


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