The Transformative Power of Enterprise Architecture
Last month's Open Group Conference in San Francisco focused on how IT and enterprise architecture support enterprise transformation. Speakers in conference events also explored the latest in service oriented architecture (SOA), cloud computing and security.
We're now joined by one of the main speakers, Jeanne Ross, director and principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research. Jeanne studies how firms develop competitive advantage through the implementation and reuse of digitized platforms.
She is also the coauthor of three books: IT Governance: How Top Performers Manage IT Decision Rights for Superior Results, Enterprise Architecture as Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution and IT Savvy: What Top Executives Must Know to Go from Pain to Gain.
To go with her Open Group presentation on how adoption of enterprise architecture (EA) leads to greater efficiencies and better business agility, Ross explains how enterprise architects have helped lead the way to successful business transformations. The interview is moderated by Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Listen to the podcast (33:46 minutes).
Here are some excerpts:
Dana Gardner: How do you measure or determine that enterprise architects and their practices are intrinsic to successful business transformations?
Jeanne Ross: That's a great question. Today, there remains kind of a leap of faith in recognizing that companies that are well-architected will, in fact, perform better, partly because you can be well-architected and perform badly. Or if we look at companies that are very young and have no competitors, they can be very poorly architected and achieve quite remarkably in the marketplace.
But what we can ascribe to architecture is that when companies have competition, then they can establish any kind of performance target they want, whether it's faster revenue growth or better profitability, and then architect themselves so they can achieve their goals. Then, we can monitor that.
We do have evidence in repeated case studies of companies that set goals, defined an architecture, started to build the capabilities associated with that architecture, and did indeed improve their performance. We have wonderful case study results that should be very reaffirming. I accept that they are not conclusive.
We also have statistical support in some of the work we've done that shows that high performers in our sample of 102 companies, in fact, had greater architecture maturity. They had deployed a number of practices associated with good architecture.
Gardner: Is there something that's new about this, rather than just trying to reengineer something?
Ross: Yes, the thing we're learning about enterprise architecture is that there's a cultural shift that takes place in an organization when it commits to doing business in a new way, and that cultural shift starts with abandoning a culture of heroes and accepting a culture of discipline.
Nobody wants to get rid of the heroes in their company. Heroes are people who see a problem and solve it. But we do want to get past heroes sub-optimizing. What companies traditionally did before they started thinking about what architecture would mean, is they relied on individuals to do what seemed best, and that clearly can sub-optimize in an environment that increasingly is global and requires things like a single face to the customer.
What we're trying to do is adopt a culture of discipline, where there are certain things that people throughout an enterprise understand are the way things need to be done, so that we actually can operate as an enterprise, not as individuals all trying to do the best thing based on our own experience.
The fundamental difference of being an architected firm is that there is some underlying discipline. I'll caution you that what tends to happen is great architects really embrace the discipline. They love the discipline. They understand the discipline, and there is a reluctance to accept that that's not the only thing we need in our organization. There are times when ad hoc behaviors enable us to be much more innovative and much more responsive and they are exactly what we need to be doing.
So there is a cultural shift that is critical to understanding what it is to be architected. That's the difference between a successful firm that's successful because it hasn't gotten into a world of really tough competition or restrictions on spending and things like that, and an organization that is trying to compete in a global economy.
Gardner: What then is the proper role of the architect?
Ross: The architect plays a really critical role in representing the need for this discipline, for some standards in the organization, and for understanding the importance of shared definitions for data. The architect should be able to create a very constructive tension in the organization, and that's the tension between individuality, innovation, local responsiveness and the need for enterprise thinking, standardization, and discipline.
Normally, in most companies, the architect's role will be the enforcer of discipline, standardization and enterprise thinking. ... We want to be architected enough to be efficient, to be able to reuse those things we need to reuse, to be agile, but we don't want to start embracing architecture for architecture's sake or discipline for discipline's sake.
We really just need architecture to pull out unnecessary cost and to enable desirable reusability. And the architect is typically going to be the person representing that enterprise view and helping everyone understand the benefits of understanding that enterprise view, so that everybody who can easily or more easily see the local view is constantly working with architects to balance those two requirements.
Gardner: Is this a particularly good time, from your vantage point, to undertake enterprise architecture?
Ross: It's a great time for most companies. There will be exceptions that I'll talk about in a minute. One thing we learned early on in the research is that companies who were best at adopting architecture and implementing it effectively had cost pressures. What happens when you have cost pressures is that you're forced to make tough decisions.
If you have all the money in the world, you're not forced to make tough decisions. Architecture is all about making tough decisions, understanding your tradeoffs, and recognizing that you're going to get some things that you want and you are going to sacrifice others.
If you don't see that, if you just say, "We're going to solve that by spending more money," it becomes nearly impossible to become architected. This is why investment banks are invariably very badly architected, and most people in investment banks are very aware of that. It's just very hard to do anything other than say, "If that's important to us, let's spend more money and let's get it." One thing you can't get by spending more money is discipline, and architecture is very tightly related to discipline.
In a tough economy, when competition is increasingly global and marketplaces are shifting, this ability to make tough decisions is going to be essential. Opportunities to save costs are going to be really valued, and architecture invariably helps companies save money. The ability to reuse, and thus rapidly seize the next related business opportunity, is also going to be highly valued.
The thing you have to be careful of is that if you see your markets disappearing, if your product is outdated, or your whole industry is being redefined, as we have seen in things like media, you have to be ready to innovate. Architecture can restrict your innovative gene, by saying, "Wait, wait, wait. We want to slow down. We want to do things on our platform." That can be very dangerous, if you are really facing disruptive technology or market changes.
So you always have to have that eye out there that says, "When is what we built that's stable actually constraining us too much? When is it preventing important innovation?" For a lot of architects, that's going to be tough, because you start to love the architecture, the standards, and the discipline. You love what you've created, but if it isn't right for the market you're facing, you have to be ready to let it go and go seize the next opportunity.