A New Brand of Partnership in the Era of Business-Led IT

Anthony J. Meyer, Vice President, Enterprise Architect at OneAmerica
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Anthony J. Meyer, Vice President, Enterprise Architect at OneAmerica

The long-running goals of Enterprise Architecture (EA) functions are typically summarized as—connect silos and enable the enterprise vision. But in their quest to align investment with strategy, EA teams sometimes have alienated business managers who lead their own IT efforts. Now more than ever, business-led efforts are driving growth in IT capital expenditures. With the paradigm shift and increased responsibility to plan technology efforts, business leaders may uncover hidden resources by taking a second look at the value their EA function can provide. At the same time, EA teams will need to adapt to the new reality of business-led IT by moving away from governance-centered thinking and towards proactive and collaborative planning. 

"EA professionals regularly spend time building roadmaps, working on solution designs and developing architecture reviews"

For years, the EA function has worked hard to bridge the gap between organizational strategy and technology investment. Many EA teams started out with the goal of cleaning up technical debt and reducing unnecessary system diversity. Since then, their goals have expanded to focus on driving value through capability based planning, although most EA teams have maintained a bias towards shared capabilities and common solutions. To this end, EA professionals regularly spend time building roadmaps, working on solution designs and developing architecture reviews. This approach to EA has been a boon to leaders with cross-organizational responsibilities and large efforts. For these leaders, EA has been instrumental in standing up flagship solutions, filling critical scope gaps, and saving money by leveraging common platforms.

But for leaders who sponsored efforts outside of the normal IT processes (or efforts with little-to-no IT budgets), their experience with EA has been noticeably different. For them, even the best-intentioned EA involvement may have looked like unnecessary bureaucracy. EA involvement would often initiate requests for more planning or to consider an ‘enterprise approach.’ Requests that were neutral on their face would succumb due to staff shortages and a lack of funding. Engaging EA was often a gamble as to whether a small project would be accelerated or slowed.

If EA teams were responsible for slowing things down, it was unlikely the result of malicious intent. Rather, EA teams often saw business-led efforts as initiatives that would not integrate well with other enterprise systems and processes. These efforts seemed to run counter to longer-term technology strategies. They may have added to the complexity of the organization’s already complicated technical stack, and they could often create data integrity or security challenges. More detailed analysis and planning might have helped refine these efforts, but the projects usually didn’t command the priority necessary to justify additional resources. 

Facing perpetual challenges with resources and priority, a common response has been to ask for separate project budgets and resources. A 2015 CEB survey indicates that business-led IT is, in large part, responsible for IT CapEx budget growth. And these days, it is not uncommon for business teams to hire leaders with strong technology backgrounds. Yet even for the brightest business and technology minds, determining the most efficient way to invest technology dollars is a challenge. The pressure to build secure, integrated, and sustainable solutions is intense and promises only to increase. No one wants to be the sponsor of an effort that radically increases operating costs, exposes sensitive data, or doesn’t deliver the promised benefits. 

Trying to fit new efforts in or around legacy systems is specialized work, and having a skilled partner can be a force multiplier. If business leaders are willing to look at their EA teams through a new lens, and EA teams are willing to adopt some new operating practices, a successful new brand of partnership may emerge in this era of business-led IT. But given the varied understanding of EA, the function may have to rebrand as partners to earn a new seat at the table.    

Enterprise Architects excel at holistic planning. While EA teams once focused on single project efforts, more and more they are planning portfolios of projects in support of a business unit’s specific strategies. EAs are in a unique position to do this work. They are experienced in taking cross-organizational understanding of the current state, combining it with business needs, and then defining a series of investments to support a long-term strategy. They are practiced at looking beyond over-exposed technology trends and focusing on root cause analysis. In doing so, they are just as likely to identify opportunities to re-define operational processes as they are to suggest data cleanup or to push leading edge middleware. Collectively, their experience translates to investments which have a greater chance of delivering on strategic intent, rather than concentrating on mostly technical requirements.   

By focusing on enablement rather than governance, EA will put its core strength front and center. This is not to say that EA should forgo their work toward cross-organizational alignment. But if there is anything common among business leaders, it is that they are intently focused on driving specific value, rather than aligning with over generalized goals. Talking about classic EA goals of strategic alignment, reduced risk, and lower operating costs in the context of a business leader’s specific goals is powerful and critical to forging new partnerships.  

So what can EA and business leaders do right now to engage in proactive planning? The first step is to build a common understanding of the current state and a shared vision of the future. It’s likely that relevant data exists in a number of different places. But the goal is to pull this together to support shared analysis and proactive planning. Here are a handful of suggestions of how to approach this: 

• Review the business unit’s current-year strategy and goals. It may sound obvious, but for teams outside the business, this information is not always easy to find.  

• Work together to build a systems capability map. Help build a common understanding of how the current state enables business today. It’s a critical foundation for future discussions. 

• Conduct a capability gap analysis. It’s hard to overstate the value of a shared understanding of problems and perspectives. You’ll be surprised at how many ‘obvious’ challenges are not understood. 

• Prioritize goals, and build a target state capability map. Not all problems can be solved at the same time. Priorities for a common vision of the future will speed up project planning down the road.

• For EA Teams: If team size permits, consider assigning a dedicated architect to each major business unit (or business relationship manager) to be a primary contact for investment planning and solution definition. Nothing says ‘commitment’ like dedicated resources. 

Refocusing EA on proactive planning may take some time. And it will take forward-thinking business leaders who are willing to take a second look EA. But a solid partnership will translate to faster planning and aligned investments. And that is something EAs and business leaders alike can support.

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