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Reinventing the Role of Enterprise Architect

| Previously published on LinkedIn, Oct 2016 |

If you are a budding enterprise architect you might be forgiven for being disillusioned about the prospects of your career choice. The role of enterprise architect is going through an identity crisis. In the past, enterprise architecture has been the central function within large organisations that defines how technology should be utilised to drive business change and deliver value. It is responsible for the strategy, standards, processes and governance structures to ensure that the various IT projects and teams are doing the right things and doing things the right way. The enterprise architect is at the heart of this central command and control structure, acting as a trusted advisor to the business and interfacing with various technology teams to provide guidance and control. In contrast, the modern digital enterprise is driven by Agile principles and is characterised by devolved control and the inherent ability to make course correction. Technology decisions are increasingly being made through direct feedback from the customer and there is a high degree of collaboration amongst project teams that would have previously worked in silos. In such an environment, it may seem that the role of enterprise architect is headed for extinction. However, in reality, the enterprise architect is still very much relevant but needs to adapt and once adapted, can play an extremely vital role in the new digital enterprise.

Old-school Enterprise Architecture

The practice of enterprise architecture originally grew out of the need to control the increasing complexity and investment in large information systems. Over the years the practice has matured by using process oriented methods, taxonomies and frameworks that aim to simplify and streamline the introduction and management of technology in the enterprise.

The enterprise architect is a multi-talented professional who combines significant technical expertise with a strong appreciation of business priorities and a dispassionate view of technology from business perspective. Some of the key areas of responsibility include:

  • Business IT alignment. In most organisations, business and IT are at loggerheads with each other. A key responsibility of the enterprise architect is to act as a bridge between the two, translating the IT vernacular into what the business can understand and vice-versa. A good listener and negotiator, this is where some of their non-technical skills come to the fore.

  • Strategy and vision. Based on the business vision and requirements, the enterprise architect develops a “to-be” state and a roadmap to transition to the desired future state through effective use of technology.

  • Technology standards and governance. Adopting and syndicating processes and frameworks such as TOGAF and Zachmann enables the enterprise architect to drive efficiencies across the organisation. Governance ensure that all parts of the organisation adhere to the common standards and processes.

  • Portfolio management. Apportioning and prioritising IT investment is an important management activity in any organisation and the enterprise architect plays a vital role in assisting the business with evaluation of technology initiatives and options.

The good news about enterprise architecture is that, when done right, it undoubtedly brings benefits in the form of cost-saving, improved productivity and strategic differentiation. The bad news is that it inculcates certain bureaucratic behaviours that often tend to negate the benefits. Some of these dis-benefits include:

  • Phased "Waterfall" project methodology. This creates a sequential delivery chain that ensures that quality criteria is met before the development of technical solution progresses forward. However, progress is often impeded by bottlenecks and dependencies. Also, all requirements are often not known upfront, so assumptions have to be made that are costly to reverse later.

  • Stage-gated portfolio management. The intent here is to regulate IT investment in stages but as with the Waterfall approach, the sequential nature is prone to delays and makes course correction costly.

  • Documentation and artifacts. The lifeblood of enterprise architecture, good quality documentation is essential part of technology development and operations. However, it reinforces a silo based communication culture and results in lengthy review and approval cycles.

  • Delivery lag. Dues to the sequential, process driven approach there is a significant lag between inception and delivery of projects. Quite often, a solution is already obsolete by the time it is actually delivered, as the requirements are likely to have changed in the ensuing period.

As a direct result of the above weaknesses, the enterprise is going through a metamorphosis. Waterfall is being replaced by Agile. Silos of team structures are being dismantled. And top-down governance is being replaced by self-organised teams with devolved authority.

The new age of Digital Enterprise

The modern enterprise is underpinned by disruptive principles that were popularised in the startup circles and are now ubiquitous in organisations, large and small. A prominent change has been the adoption of the Agile project delivery method. The essence behind the Agile is encapsulated by the Agile Manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.

  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

  • Responding to change over following a plan.

Apart from Agile, a number of other developments such as DevOps, Continuous Integration and commoditised Cloud services have also contributed to the reshaping of the enterprise. The DevOps paradigm addresses the age old disconnect between development and operations teams. It fosters a culture of communication and best practice across silos to ensure joint accountability in developing and operating new technical capabilities. Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment ensure that new features and changes are introduced regularly, in small doses rather than in big releases. Commoditised Cloud services, SOA, Microservices and data driven architecture have all created unprecedented options for building and integrating customer driven, distributed applications with self-service capabilities. Finally, the availability of data analytics allows technology decisions to be made based on accurate information rather than relying on assumptions and conjecture.

The practices employed by new digital enterprises are evidently producing beneficial results. Product development is quicker, with development time shrunk to weeks rather than months. Costs are reduced by removal of waste and by developing exactly what the customer asks for. And the outcomes are of higher quality, with reduced number of defects. The practices are indeed extremely effective at the individual project level, at small to medium scale. However, scaling these up to the enterprise level is still a challenging prospect. Scaling up requires coordination and integration amongst the various self-organising Agile teams to deliver consistent and cost-effective outcomes across the larger organisation as a whole. It requires some level of process, planning and governance to provide the glue to bind the various autonomous activities. A number of emerging frameworks are attempting to solve this particular problem. One such framework is SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework), pioneered by Dean Leffingwell.

SAFe divides the enterprise into three tiers: Portfolio, Program and Team level. At the top, Portfolio level creates a backlog organised into an Architectural Runway - a schedule with sufficient technical resources to deliver current and near time initiatives. The next tier of Program level is aimed at coordination and integration between multiple teams and it defines the Agile Release Train as the capability to deliver releases in the form of Potentially Shippable Increments. PSIs provide regular increments of value as specified in the business initiatives. The bottom tier of Team level looks more like a conventional Agile project team, working through a backlog of user stories and delivering these in Sprints. This layered approach of applying Agile principles across the enterprise can be an effective way of introducing a level of governance and control without impacting any of the project delivery capabilities.

It is clear that the digital enterprise requires a new form of enterprise architecture. One that combines all the goodness of modern Agile practices with light touch processes and an architectural framework that is responsive to business change. This is prime territory for the enterprise architect.

Enterprise Architect in the Digital Enterprise

The enterprise architect has always been a change enabler, and the core strengths of the role continue to be relevant today but these need to be adapted for the digital enterprise. The top down, prescriptive approach needs to be replaced with a more collaborative, decentralised discourse where enterprise architecture is continuously evolving through assimilation of feedback. A new set of processes and blueprints need to be developed to enable the digital enterprise at scale to deliver value while maintaining safety, security and quality standards.

Strategy and Vision - As before, the ability to plan for future technology demands are an important trait. However, instead of developing strategy and vision in isolation and be purely driven by the business, input should be sought from the various project delivery and operations teams to steer the direction. The vision need to be broken down into a number of value streams and a portfolio backlog, that in turn feed the various project and product backlogs.

Business IT alignment - The digital enterprise may employ more efficient delivery methods but there is still the need to ensure technology solutions deliver value to the business and are aligned with the goals set out by the business. In addition, due to the autonomous and devolved way of working, there is a need to ensure that the multiple, diverse teams are tightly coordinated, and together they produce a coherent whole that is aligned with the business. As before, the enterprise architect can use their communication skills to act as a medium between the various business and technology teams.

Continuous architecture - One of the defining characteristic of the digital enterprise is its ability to absorb and adapt to change. Traditional enterprise architecture is unable to cater to such continuous change. Therefore one of the key responsibilities of the enterprise architect is to build an open, adaptable architecture that evolves with successive iterations and takes input from all quarters. The enterprise architect acts as a gatekeeper rather than the sole contributor to the enterprise architecture.

Agile enterprise framework - Digital enterprise architecture is going through a period of maturity, and part of that maturity involves development of frameworks to formalise its structure and processes. The enterprise architect should adopt and champion an Agile enterprise framework such as SAFe or DAD.

Portfolio management - A key responsibility of the enterprise architect is to guide the business with technology investment decisions and to help with prioritising the portfolio of projects and programmes. For the digital enterprise this involves disaggregation of major initiatives into a backlog of value streams that can be assigned to project teams for delivery. Considerable thought needs to be given in order to ensure that the disaggregation results in the optimal outcomes for business. 

Build versus buy - The technology landscape is changing at an ever increasing pace. What is being built today may be available as a commoditised service tomorrow. The digital enterprise provides new ways of assembling and consuming technology solutions based on commodity (Cloud) services. With such rapid change in the technology landscape, the challenge of build versus buy can be a particularly tough nut to crack.

Governance and control - The digital enterprise is not just about developing and delivering technology solutions faster. It is also about maintaining high standards of safety, security and quality. The enterprise architect has to ensure that the non-functional requirements do not get lost in the quest for speed. This is particularly important across multiple Agile project teams that individually may not have the considered the impact of their deliverables on the combined whole. 

Hands-on approach - In the digital enterprise, the enterprise architect is expected to play a more hands on approach. They will regularly attend project stand-ups. They will use spikes and proof-of-concept activities to validate hypothesis. At times they may have to assume aspects of other roles such as scrum master, business analyst, product owner, and developer to facilitate communication and alignment with the common continuous architecture.

So, if you are a budding enterprise architect, do not despair. These are exciting times for you. Your core strengths are still relevant but need to be adapted. At the same time, the digital enterprise organisation brings a whole new raft of interesting challenges. And what’s more, rather than just producing artifacts, you get the opportunity to roll up you sleeves and play a more active role in the delivery process. Good luck!

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