I have always regarded the idea of competency centres with a degree of suspicion. Since they are typically promoted by vendors they must be an excuse to sell you more software and services, right? Well, following discussions with Informatica about its Integration Competency Centers (ICCs) I am not so sure. Of course, that may still be a spin-off but I am now inclined to believe that they may offer genuine value and, in the long run, may actually save you money, even if more of what you do spend ends up in Informatica's coffers.
Part of the reason for my conversion is due to John Schmidt, who is the Informatica ICC practice leader. I don't often refer to individuals here but it is pertinent in this case because John is a long-time advocate of competency centres (from well before he joined Informatica earlier this year), the co-author of the first book on ICCs, chairman of the Integration Consortium and editor of the Integration Journal. Such a pedigree is reassuring.
However, before I go on, I suppose I had better explain what an ICC is. In a nutshell it is a group of IT professionals dedicated to integration, with a key feature that integration is an ongoing discipline rather than just being treated as a series of independent projects. In essence, the idea is that you take a factory-like approach that uses repeatable processes to speed up the delivery, and reduce the cost of, the integrations that you need to deliver to the business. Whether you actually call such a group an ICC is another matter: John Schmidt reports meeting companies that have effectively established an ICC without really thinking of it in that way.
So, what actually is included within what Informatica does to support the establishment of an ICC? Well, it isn't just about the best practices that you might employ to use Informatica's software, though those are, of course, included. Other notable features include data governance best practices and financial management (amongst others), both of which extend well beyond the reach of integration scenarios per se. If we take the financial management, for example, this includes analysis of different chargeback schemes, with consideration of which are most appropriate for different project types, the perception of the fairness of these different approaches and so on, so that you can select variable chargeback schemes as is most appropriate.
Of course, ICCs are not relevant to everybody. Informatica reckons to target ICCs primarily at companies with around 200 IT staff in total. Below that, and certainly when you get down to the 50 mark, then the best practices model will be useful but the formal establishment of an ICC will probably be unnecessary though it does, of course, depend on the nature of the business.
Finally, perhaps the most surprising about ICCs is that more companies don't promote them. There are others who do so in other areas but within the data integration space it is Informatica who is most vociferous in its support for ICCs. It seems to me that taking a production line approach to integrations makes a lot of sense and if that is the aim of an ICC (and it is) then they should be more widely considered and implemented. Indeed, I consider it to be a major competitive differentiator for Informatica.