Enterprise Architecture: A Value Business Driver, yet Unexplored.

Tianbing Qian (TQ), SVP & CIO, Ports America Corporation

Enterprise Architecture (EA) is among the most promising practices in terms of its potential to help transforming business and IT alike. Yet over the past 30 years, the profession’s track records have been mixed at best. Many companies’ EA teams are being viewed as ineffective and costly. Gartner in 2007 predicted “... by 2012 40 percent of enterprise architecture programs will be stopped” and again in 2015 found “70 percent of organizations are starting or restarting an EA program”.

One thing is clear – that the failure of EA to realize its full potential was not due to the lack of smart talent. Having spent a portion of career responsible for EA at two large companies, I have personally witnessed many top-notch talents drawn to this profession. Over the years, many leading thinkers in the industry have made contributions to EA. For instance: : Zachman’s groundbreaking work on enterprise architecture framework; MIT CISR Jeanne Rose’s breakthrough research linking enterprise architecture to a company’s core Operating Model; and a recent paper by Gartner’s Brand and Burton on the worst EA practices to avoid and how to navigate to EA success.

  The full spectrum of EA is much broader and fluid - it attempts to model the entire enterprise and address all stacks: from process to applications to data to infrastructure 

If not people, then why three decades of under achievements? In my opinion, several factors contributed to this:


Despite the well-recognized fact that enterprise architecture goes beyond IT, in general EA team is mainly recognized by CIOs, and not by CEO & other top business leaders. We all know that if EA’s influence is only restricted within IT, it likely will fall short.

For EA to shine, in my opinion, several “stars” or key factors need to line up together: a strong IT organization & CIO buy-in of company’s top business leaders, a transformational agenda, strong EA team, and practical mindset of combining quick wins and long term to gain sustainable momentum.

In reality, it is difficult for all these key conditions to be true at the same time. For example, if overall IT organization is not viewed as a strong partner to business, it will be very tough for EA to shine alone… On the other hand, when a CEO like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos mandated every team has to use API standards, people follow.

It is a Hard Problem!

Traditionally enterprise architecture is often compared to architecture of buildings. I would argue that domain architecture or software architecture are more similar to civil architecture, their scope are relatively well-defined - and that is why they are all successful. However, the full spectrum of EA is much broader and fluid - it attempts to model the entire enterprise and address all stacks: from process to applications to data to infrastructure. It is simply very, very hard. Another related profession, Business Process Management (or BPM) also has similar ambitious mission to tackle this hard problem, i.e. model the entire enterprise. Not surprisingly, just like EA, BPM also has mixed records over the years...

So, given the harsh reality and the near mission impossible, should we give up and run for the exit? The answer is a definite NO. In my view, the best time of Enterprise Architecture is yet to come, and there are many driving forces and opportunities right now for EA to shine:

Rapid advances in technology, especially cloud, mobile, Interne-Of-Things, analytics, put tremendous pressure for companies to design the right enterprise architecture platform (not just technology) in order to fully unleash the power of these technologies. EA is a critical enabler for that goal.

Digital transformation is disrupting industry after industry – a burning platform for EA to shine and help combine technology, business model, and innovation together.

• Many large enterprises are looking for ways to execute their business strategy – it is certainly a top issue on many CEO’s mind. This is another golden opportunity for EA to focus on – enabling Strategy Execution.

Lean Process Improvement continued to gain huge momentum across many industries. How to integrate process optimization, lean, and EA together represents a major opportunity for companies to create value shareholder value.

• To add a bit historical perspective - One profession that EA can learn and draw inspiration is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Similar to EA, AI was also born with grand promises. Over the past 60 years, AI has gone through cycles of hypes and busts, for some of the same reasons - goals too ambitious, stars not lined up together, technology is not quite there, learning curves, etc. Yet today AI is entering a golden era with deep learning, flying drones, auto-driving cars, and machine learning everywhere. Will this eventually happen to EA profession? I certainly hope so! EA is only 30 years old, hopefully we don’t need to wait another 30! With these enormous challenges and exciting opportunities, what roles should CIO play to help the company and EA teams fully realize the potential of Enterprise Architecture?

• First and foremost, CIO should focus on building a “strong IT organization” that has a strong voice inside the company, a trusted business partner, a customer-focused team that delivers on promise and runs like a business, and a driving force for innovation. Without a strong IT organization and culture, it is difficult to achieve EA success alone.

• Second, it is not enough for CIOs to just build the EA team as hands-off managers. Rather, we should personally act as the “Lead Architect for the Enterprise”. As a top executive, we have a seat at the table, knowing all major commercial, M&A, transformational opportunities and where the focus should be. We are the ones who work with every business unit and function, have an inside view of every business process, and know where cross-functional improvement sweet spots are. We can be the best positioned evangelist to get buy-in from business leaders for EA. On a typical company’s senior team, CEO focuses on strategy/market, CFO on financials, COO on operational efficiency, BU Leaders focuses on commercial/customers, CIO is truly best positioned to be the lead architect to help CEO link strategy to execution, and use EA as a tool to build a scalable operating model, and help turn strategy into sustainable execution momentum.

• EA is a broad field – as such the possibility of leveraging EA to create value is almost boundless – This leads to the third role CIO can play for EA: as “Portfolio Advisor”. We can help EA teams pick sweet spots, make tradeoff between short and long term, balance sometime conflicting goals among profit growth, asset efficiency, and customer delight, and help attract the right talent into this exciting and transformational field.

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