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Enterprise Architecture – the search for a faster horse?

Len Fehskens from The Open Group recently wrote an interesting article for The Open Group blog titled ‘Enterprise Architecture’s Quest for its Identity‘ (and subsequently recycled at ZDNet and SOA World Magazine), where he poses two questions:

  1. Is enterprise architecture primarily about IT or is it about the entire enterprise?
  2. Is enterprise architecture a “hard” discipline or a “soft” discipline?

Len argues in favour of Enterprise Architecture as a soft discipline concerned with the entire enterprise and not just IT. But I would have liked Len to have addressed the ‘why?’ part better – often identity is derived from the purpose of doing it. He makes a few references to ‘descriptions’ of an enterprise. But as Todd Biske pointed out, the relevance of Enterprise Architecture is determined by the whether the Architects of an enterprise are Enterprise Archivist (model focused) or Enterprise Activist (engagement focused).

Pragmatic EA did a survey on Linkedin back in 2009 called the ‘160 Character Challenge: What is the Purpose of EA?‘ The idea was basically to get people to describe, what they believed to the purpose of Enterprise Architecture. They received about 400 responses and subsequently compiled it into the following statement: ‘The purpose of Enterprise Architecture is to enable an enterprise to realise its Vision, by Strategic Planning, Architecture and Governance, using Models, Guidance, Processes and Tools.

The definition seems aligned with Len’s point – that Enterprise Architecture is about the entire Enterprise, and not just IT. The purpose of EA is strategic planning, architecture and governance. But of what, one might ask? The enterprise – a socio-technical system? In principle, it is probably quite a useful venture, so why the quest for identity in the first place? Or search for a business case justification for Enterprise Architecture?

Marketing and Accounting don’t seem to have the same problem. Here’s my guess.

Architecture is inherently, for better or worse, an IT concept borrowed from the ‘real’ building architects. We use it as a metaphor to describe the importance of capturing and communicating significant software design decisions. However, I don’t often come across people outside of IT using or even understands the concept of an architecture. For example, the top reads from Harvard Business Review cover topics such as ‘competitive advantage’, ‘innovation’, ‘core competence’, ‘leading change’, ’emotional intelligence’, ‘career’ and ‘customer focus’ – but no mention of architecture. An organisational structure might be what comes closest.

So by simply uttering the word ‘architecture’, we find ourselves on the back foot. They hear IT rather than architecture, and turn off. Hirschheim notes a similar sentiment in his foreword for the book ‘Information systems outsourcing‘. According to him, one of the key reasons for choosing to outsource IT is that ‘they don’t get IT’. IT is seen as a cost, and not as a source of innovation and leadership.

But why do we care?

We care, because we use software to automate information processing within an enterprise, either by using IT to replace existing, manual processes or by re-designing the process – as noted in the article: “Automate; informate; the two faces of intelligent technology” by Zuboff from Harvard University back in 1985. Almost by definition, the flow of information within the enterprise mirrors that of the flow of information within the IT systems (also known as Conway’s Law). But the price of automation is the fossilisation of information flow fragments within the software systems. The IT department is forever attempting to align with the business, but finding it near impossible as the sum of today’s enterprise IT systems is the amalgamation of several decades of organisational structures and processes – nothing like the one that exists today.

I think that, Enterprise Architecture came into existence as an attempt to control this fossilisation process, because software is a difficult thing to change despite the perception of being ‘soft’. So in essence, even Len’s version of Enterprise Architecture remain focused on IT.

Henry Ford is often quoted for having said: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse“. I think IT departments are often too focused on delivering faster horses (automate the existing process). And the idea of Enterprise Architecture is in itself ‘a faster horse’ version of ‘software architecture’.

An accounting department does much more than just keeping track of expenditure and produce reports. For example, they also seek to find ways to uptimise the cash flow and search for innovative lending options to create competitive advantages for the enterprise.

Equally, IT should be about how an enterprise can exploit software to its competitive advantage, and not just about expenditure tracking and reporting. We need Enterprise Architects to lead the search for innovative ways to exploit IT for competitive advantages – rather than ‘faster horses’ = more models, more governance processes or more plans for how software is developed or managed.

In other words, they need to be concerned with how can we re-design an enterprise to enable it exploit new technologies to its full potential. Maybe we should rename Enterprise Architecture to the ‘IT Innovation Team’ or IT2.

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