The State of Enterprise Architecture: Vast Promise or Lost Opportunity?

Updated: July 23, 2010

Here to help us better understanding the dynamic role of EA, we're joined by Jeanne Ross, Director and Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research and noted author; Dave Hornford, an architecture practice principal at Integritas Solutions, as well as the Chairman of The Open Group Architecture Forum, and Len Fehskens, Vice President for Skills and Capabilities at The Open Group. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Fehskens: [Enterprise architecture] is really just a gleam in many people's eye at this point. If you look at the discipline of EA and compare it to mature professions like law and medicine, we're back 200-300 years ago. We've been doing a lot of research recently into the professionalization of other disciplines.

Most of the people studying the subject come up with a fairly short list of characteristics of professions. They usually include things like a well-defined body of knowledge, and well-defined educational program and particular degree programs, often offered by schools that are specifically focused on the discipline, not just the department within a larger organization.

There's some kind of professional certification or vetting process and often even some kind of legal sanction, a right to practice or right to bear the title. We don't have any of those things right now for EA.

Proprietary knowledge

The body of knowledge is widely distributed and is largely proprietary. We're at a state similar to going to a lawyer, and the lawyers try to sell themselves based on secret processes that only they had that would allow you to get a fair shake before a judge. Or similar thing with a doctor, who would say, "Come to this hospital, because we're the only people who know how to do this particular kind of procedure."

So, we've got a long way to go. The big thing we've got going for us is that, as Jeanne pointed out, the stakes are high and so many organizations are becoming dependent upon the competent practice of EA as a discipline.

There's a lot of energy in the system to move forward very quickly on the professionalization of the discipline, and in addition to take advantage of what we've learned from watching the professionalization of disciplines like law, medicine, engineering, civil architecture, etc. We've got long ways to go, but we are running really hard to make some progress.

Ross: The stakes are high, because organizations are becoming more digital out of necessity. It's a more digital economy. Thus, IT is more strategic. I think people see that, but outside of people who have already embraced architecture, there is some reluctance to think that the way we get more value from IT is basically by taming it, by establishing a vision and building to standards and understanding how that relates back to new ways of doing business, and actually developing standards around business processes and around data.

... The architect's role is to make sure that there is a vision. You may have to help provide that vision as to what that process is, and how it fits into a bigger vision. So there is a lot of negotiation and envisioning that becomes part of an architect's role that is above and beyond just the technology piece and the methodology that we've worked so hard at in terms of developing the discipline.

... We've learned a lot about methodologies, disciplines, and tools, but there is an art to be able to take the long-term vision for an organization and not just say, "It'll come guys, be patient," but rather, "I understand that starting tomorrow, we need to begin generating value from more disciplined processes."

... There is a piece of it that's just not appealing [across the organization]. Besides, we feel like this should all be about innovation, which should be all exciting stuff. Architecture just doesn't have the right feel for a lot of businesspeople.

Hornford: The stakes are high in the sense that should someone in your industry figure this out, they will change the game on you, and you will now be in a serious trouble. As long as all of your competition is struggling as long as you are, you're okay. It's when someone figures it out that they will change the game.

Where people are doing it well is where they are focused on business value. The question of what is business value is highly dependent. People will mention a term, "agility." I work with a mining company. They define agility as the ability to disassemble their business. They have a mine. Someone buys the mine. We need to remove the mine from the business. A different organization will define agility a different way, but underpinning all of that is what is the business trying to achieve? What is their vision and what is their goal?

Practitioners who are pursuing this have to be very clear on what is the end state, what is the goal, what is the business transformation, and how will the digital assets of the corporation the IT asset actually enable where they're going, so that they're able to move themselves to a target more effectively than their competition.

... The fundamental with leadership in EA is that architects don't own things. They are not responsible for the business processes. They are not responsible for the sales results. They are responsible for leading a group of people to that transformation, to that happy place, or to the end-state that you're trying to achieve.

If you don't have good leadership skills, the rest of it fundamentally doesn't matter. You'll be sitting back and saying, "Well, if I only had a hammer. If I only had authority, I could make people do things." Well, if you have that authority, you would be the general manager. You'd be the COO. They're looking for someone to assist them in areas of the business at times that they can't be there.

... If you do not lead and do not take the risk to lead, the transformation won't occur. One of the barriers for the profession today is that many architects are not prepared to take the risk of leadership.

Fehskens: A phrase that you'll hear architects use a lot is "compelling value proposition." The authority of an architect ultimately comes from their ability to articulate a compelling value proposition for architecture in general, for specific architect in a specific situation. Even if you have a compelling value proposition and it falls on deaf ears, for whatever reason, that's the end of the road.

There isn't any place you can go, because the only leverage an architect has is the ability to articulate a compelling value proposition that says, "I've recognized this. I acknowledge this is promise, but here's why you have reason to believe that I can actually deliver on this and that when I have delivered on this, this thing itself will deliver these promised benefits."

But, you have to be able to make that argument and you have to be able to do it in the language of the audience that you're speaking to. This is probably one of the biggest problems that architects coming from a technical background have. They'll tell you about features and functions but never get around talking about benefits.

... Architects are ultimately charged with making sure that whatever it is that they're architecting is fit for purpose. Fitness for purpose involves not doing any more than you absolutely have to. ... The architect's approach to dealing with the architectural way of problem solving means that agility and cost cutting sort of are not short-term focuses. They are just built into the idea of why we do architecture in the first place.

... My experience with businesspeople is they don't really care how you do something. All they care is what results you're going to produce. What you do is just a black box. All they care about is whether or not the black box delivers all the promises that it made.

To convince somebody that you can actually do this, that the black box will actually solve this problem without going into the details of the intricacies and sort of trying to prove that if I just show you how it works then you'll obviously come to the conclusion that it will do what I promise, you can't do that that. For most audiences that just doesn't work. That's probably one of the most fundamental skills that architects need in order to work through this problem -- getting people to buy into what they are trying to sell.

The thing to recognize about business agility is that it's a journey. You don't want to start making your compelling business values something you can't deliver for three years.

Ross: The thing to recognize about business agility is that it's a journey. You don't want to start making your compelling business values something you can't deliver for three years. Many times the path to agility is through risk management, where you can demonstrate the ability of the IT unit to reduce downtime to increase security or lower cost. The IT unit can often find ways to lower IT cost or to lower operational cost through IT.

So, many times, the compelling value proposition for agility is down the road. We've already learned how to save money. Then, it's an easier sell to say, "Oh, you know, we haven't used IT all that well in the past, but now we can make you more agile." I just don't think anybody is going to buy it.

It's a matter of taking it a step at a time, showing the organization what IT can help them do, and then, over time, there's this natural transition. In fact, I'm guessing a lot of organizations say, "Look, we're more agile than we used to be." It wasn't because they said they were going to be agile, but rather because they said they were going to keep doing things better day after day.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod and Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: The Open Group.

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