Panel: enterprise architecture hamstrung by business impatience

EA 'just doesn’t have the right feel for a lot of businesspeople': panel looks at ways to address lingering misconceptions.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

"[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."

- Len Fehskens, vice president for skills and capabilities at The Open Group.

Fehsken's observation was made at an interesting panel discussion, led by ZDNet colleague Dana Gardner, at Open Group's recent Boston confab that explored the current state of enterprise architecture.

EA 'just doesn’t have the right feel for a lot of businesspeople'

EA holds plenty of promise for organizations seeking to unravel the spaghetti they now call information technology, but it tends to be misunderstood -- and therefore severely undervalued. One panelist, MIT's Jeanne Ross, sums it up succinctly this way: EA "just doesn’t have the right feel for a lot of businesspeople."

Why is this so?  Perhaps it's because EA means deliberately and methodologically planning out an IT strategy over a multi-year period, and many businesspeople, worried about this quarter's numbers, simply are too impatient for such a process to take effect. Dana neatly describes the problem as EA suffering from a "delayed gratification effect," in which businesspeople want their systems to deliver today, and not divert resources to long-term planning.

But many organizations ultimately may not be able to afford to go without a good EA approach, Ross relates, especially in a highly digital economy. "The stakes are too high" in a highly digitize economy, she points out.However, she continues, "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."

Taming IT may be a good way to describe the mission of EA. But as in taming animals, there is a certain art that needs to go with the science. Ross says the way to sell EA to impatient businesses is to put the "art" into architecture. "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.'"

The balance is to pursue EA in a way that delivers value today, while building something sustainable for the long run.

Fehskens also points out that EAs need to play a key role as intermediaries between enterprises and IT vendors -- often an area where hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent in the blink of an eye. "You can’t optimize your side at the expense of other side, because at some point that’s going to come back and bite you. We have to make it possible for architects to have those conversations and to make it apparent to the businesspeople on both sides what the business value is."

Overall, some great arguments for encouraging and developing sound EA practices and skills.

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