As the economy tentatively picks itself off the floor and tries to head north, organizations continue to scrutinize the value that IT brings to the business. Doing more with less is still seen as the key to success for IT organizations. In that respect, enterprise architecture (EA) is being touted by many leading organizations as a means to achieving this.
Many business leaders ask: "Isn't architecture an IT thing? If so, that's not my problem, that's IT's problem". The answer is, of course: It depends.
What exactly is enterprise architecture?
Historically, the majority of organizations have implemented IT on a per-project basis, leading to a profusion of... "stove-pipe" implementations.
EA is a top-down, business strategy-driven process that coordinates the parallel, internally consistent development of enterprise business, information, and technology architectures, as well as the enterprise solutions architecture. In layman terms, EA is not about how computers talk to one another, it is about a process that helps organizations think strategically about IT.
Historically, the majority of organizations have implemented IT on a per-project basis. This has led to a profusion of what is often termed "stove-pipe" implementations: isolated IT systems that are designed purely for a subset of the organization's business processes, usually without specific regard to the impact on, or the opportunities for reuse across, the rest of the organization.
In time, this leads to continually compounding levels of operational complexity and inefficiency through:
- Duplication: multiple solutions providing similar business functions, leading to multiple vendors and contracts, duplication of support skills required, etc.
- Customized integration: making sharing of information, data integrity and problem and change management difficult.
- Unreliable impact analysis: without a clear "map" of system interconnectivity and interdependence, it is very difficult to assess change, leading to inaccurate budgeting and forecasting and lower levels of organizational agility.
Furthermore, because of this isolated, project-oriented approach, organizations struggled to clearly articulate and justify why they were making specific IT investments, and what the expected return on those investments would be at the enterprise level. This has resulted in ineffective governance and lack of accountability.
The silver bullet?
To address these issues, the concept of an IT EA was developed. EA, in its essence, is a description of how an organization's use of technology is specifically designed (architected) to support its business processes and strategic objectives. EA provides an enterprise-wide view of how all the organization's supporting IT systems (applications, infrastructure, data and information) fit together across the organization. The advantage of having such a view is that it becomes clear where the organization's use of IT is efficient and effective, where it can or should be enhanced or modified, and what the impact of change is (predictability and accountability).
In short, a well developed and maintained EA can drive an organization's financial efficiency and business effectiveness by ensuring that:
- There is a clear map between business strategy and technology deployment.
- The organization is more adaptive to change.
- Information dependency is well understood, leading to seamless integration, data sharing and data integrity.
- Security requirements and risk management strategies are holistic and effective.
- Systems function and interoperate in a reliable and predictable manner leading to greater dependability and reliability.
- IT governance is clear and effective.
- There is minimal duplication of function and resources leading to maximal efficiency through reuse.
A META Group survey of CIOs in 2002 showed that average total cost per end user (i.e., using the entire IT budget) for IT shops with an Architectural Board is US$12,736. Without one, this came to US$27,709. This in itself seems to indicate that EA allows organizations to support more users with fewer IT resources.
EA--a process, not a thing
EA is one of several strategic planning processes that exist inside complex organizations. It should complement and supplement market, competitive, production, logistics, customer service and communication strategies. EA differs from classic strategic planning inasmuch as it includes many downstream implementation activities, including links to business and IT operational plans, and enterprise program management, which provide "feedback loops" for the iterative development of strategy.
EA efforts are often the first to suffer, because:
- Traditional technical architecture is viewed as an IT shop activity, rather than a business initiative.
- It appears academic and un-actionable.
In an "architected" environment, the accountability for making IT investment decisions no longer rests solely on IT. It is jointly shared.
- It does not address the market and competitive drivers of the business.
- Principles, guidelines, and rules appear to delay the implementation of new applications, databases and infrastructure, rather than speed delivery.
Hence, there is a need for a paradigm shift within organizations--that architecture helps drive success within the business through the use of IT. Instead of having IT leaders consistently justify and defend their IT investment decisions time and again, EA avoids this scenario by allowing them to consciously make investment decisions that support specific business strategies, and providing a common language to communicate this back to the business. In an "architected" environment, the accountability for making IT investment decisions no longer rests solely on IT. It is jointly shared.
To get more bang for the IT buck, organizations may wish to consider embracing an EA approach. Not only will these organizations find that they do not constantly end up with IT "white elephants" by adopting the discipline of an EA approach, they will find that business will no longer be obsessed by the costs related to IT, and will choose instead to focus on the value that IT brings to the table.
Damien Wong is vice president and general manager of META Group
Singapore, a technology research firm. He is also a member of the CNETAsia SMB Advisory Board.