Delivering Business Value through Agile EA

Kevin A. Wince, Chief Enterprise Architect, General Services Administration (GSA)
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Kevin A. Wince, Chief Enterprise Architect, General Services Administration (GSA)

Is your Enterprise Architecture (EA) team seen as an oversight or data call organization? Do decision makers have access to the information when it’s needed?

The General Services Administration (GSA) EA team developed a transformative new approach to maintain system information in 2014. Previously, EA data was kept in an EA database,but the data was outdated and not maintained. The focus shifted to visualizations and ways in which data can be made more accessible and available to all of GSA through an open source solution called the GSA EA Analytics and Reporting (GEAR) tool. The concept was developed because of limited access to the data and long development timelines, so GSA explored a different method to provide global, role­based access to the information. GEAR is an agile web application that can provide EA data to every employee at GSA. The focus, from the very beginning, was simplicity along with a business­friendly presentation of data and reports.

Traditionally at GSA, EA contained a fair amount of shelfware. Whether it was The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF) or the Federal Enterprise Architecture Framework (FEAF), the architects often created models for compliance purposes that often went unused. Now, the vision for EA is more about providing the authoritative data for decision making and for consistency across the enterprise. GSA looks to provide data to people at all levels through the use of GEAR, and to applications through the use of application program interfaces (APIs).

Figure 1:GEAR Homepage

How does GEAR work? The EA database creates an operational data store nightly to ensure the most up to date data is provided to the user. GEAR pulls its data from this data store through API exchanges. The EA database is now the authoritative location for all GSA employees and contractors to use for information about applications, business capabilities, Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA) systems, IT hardware and software standards, and the four year application roadmap reports.

The EA Team takes an agile approach to development of GEAR: the team conducts weekly sprints where new tasks are prioritized and incremental results are delivered in one to two weeks rather than several months. Each week, new capabilities are pushed to the user allowing them more information to make data driven decisions. The team started with an agile approach that allowed GEAR to go from concept to production in under four months.

The initial focus on GEAR was to provide basic reports and deliver 70­80 percent data accuracy to the GSA community. Over time, the popularity of GEAR grew and the user community requested more complex reports and different data sets. This feedback, combined with feedback from the GSA community about minor data fixes, has resulted in data accuracy of 90­ to 95 percent.

Figure 2: GSA Authoritative Application Report

More than 2,300 employees at GSA have accessed GEAR since October of 2015, when the team started tracking metrics. This indicates that the interest is not just from IT users, but also business line/ mission­oriented users who are able to use the data for decision­making purposes. Because these users want to take ownership of their data, a major benefit to the EA Program is having such visibility of the EA data across the enterprise. The EA Program grants access to specific data sets within the EA database so that both business and technical POCs take ownership of maintaining the information. Relying on the true subject matter experts to maintain their own data allows the EA Program to stay lean, increases participation across GSA, and instills confidence that the data is accurate.

GEAR also provides the visibility into the alignment between GSA applications and the FEAF Business Reference Model. This model further extends to identify the GSA­specific capabilities in a hierarchical format. However, it improves on a typical capability hierarchy model because a business leader or program analyst can quickly find a capability, such as “Payments,” and see which and how many applications support that business function. This also identifies the four­year strategic roadmap for each application associated to the capability to inform the user if the application will be tolerated, invested, migrated or eliminated over the next four years. In a fiscally constrained environment, this is an important first step in determining which current or planned expenditures may be duplicative.

The EA team also utilizes a methodology called application rationalization to conduct analysis on portfolios of applications. Application rationalization provides a consistent approach to common language conversations between business and IT stakeholders to discuss the strategic direction for GSA’s IT investments. This approach helps these business and IT leaders decide to retire, consolidate, replace or modernize the Agency’s applications. Application rationalization at GSA is a business­focused, data­driven methodology to analyze the IT application portfolio, resulting in both qualitative and quantitative benefits.

Figure 3: Business Capability Model

A component of application rationalization is a deep dive assessment on every application within the portfolio. These interviews allow the EA team to rapidly and consistently collect business and technical data on every application. This information gets fed into the EA repository, and updates the GEAR site nightly. This agile data processing benefits the business by data centralization, improved end user experience, data­driven governance decisions and improved allocation of resources. It also benefits the EA team, who is now able to provide up­to­date and reliable information almost instantly. This agile and business­friendly approach to EA allows for data collection, without making it feel like a data collection exercise.

GSA’s innovative approach and thought leadership for application rationalization and agile EA has garnered the attention of other government and industry leaders. GSA is committed to EA providing value to the organization in multiple ways. Application rationalization is used to assess entire portfolios of applications and determine which can be eliminated. The methodology ultimately provides a four­year strategic application roadmap which senior governance boards can use to make data driven decisions so that investments align with the strategic direction of the office. All these data and collection activities comprise a single dashboard which is used across the agency for informational and decisional purposes. Having that authoritative source of information ensures all staff are working from the same data set.

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