Scrutinizing the Complexity of Technology

Ted Kieffer, Director, Enterprise Architecture, Grainger
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Ted Kieffer, Director, Enterprise Architecture, Grainger

Talking about emerging technologies and technology trends, and Enterprise Architecture (EA) is of little value while a much bigger—and basic—challenge of the ‘alignment’ looms large. Let me explain why I think alignment issue is the root of the problems we’re facing with technology complexity now.

There is no doubt that the IT industry is accelerating. There is a natural, expected acceleration in the technology itself which is not surprising to anyone. We’ve had well established principles like Moore’s law to help guide our expectations in that regard. The upgrade paths are largely linear and relatively easy to understand.

Then there’s the acceleration of business value that slams into those understood linear paths through orthogonal values, approaches, ideas and technologies. It is these kind of changes that are making the job more difficult. For example, I have been surprised by the degree of turbulence that disruption-focused businesses are causing because of their innovative new ways of driving speed to market. Whether or not business disruption is anywhere near or as successful as its hype is an argument for another time.

The frantic startup environment has led to a new way of driving business value to market quickly. Although that comes with drawbacks, it has led to a perception that there are viable alternatives to the status quo. The business can see that competitors and other industries are improving their alignment and accelerating their time to market. They want that from all of us. For how many years now has business alignment been one of the top CIO priorities? It’s a perennial contender going back as long as I have been in IT.

  Demand that your EA team maps out the business and the supporting people and technology  

We haven’t exactly helped alleviate the problem. I have met far too many CIOs who behave instead like Chief Technology Officers. We lost, or never had, mission focus on the true value that we are delivering to the organization we support and instead focus on the technology. Even worse is when I meet Chief Cost Control Officers, Chief Shiny Object Officers, and Chief Outsourcing Officers. We’ve largely lost sight, or perhaps never had real sight of the business value enabled by our machine.

It’s understandable how we lose sight of the original business. We hire machinists to build that machine. We hire operators to run it. Those specialists know the machine very well. What they tend not to know well is the business process that the machine is accelerating. It’s highly unlikely that we find machinists that are also cross-discipline entrepreneurs who deeply understand business.

It shouldn’t be surprising that I’m going to say that EA is the answer. Tom Graves coined a phrase that I love very much when it comes to what you should expect from EA: “Things work better when they work together, on purpose”

Why then haven’t you already heard more about the practice? True EA organizations have struggled to show value. I think it’s because of the two main factors:

1.The time horizon for EA work is 3-5 years. Most organizations do not track activity beyond 12-18 months. That makes it hard to demonstrate value when the initial investment is far outside of the normal financial measurement scale which almost always is only forward looking.

2.Too many EA practitioners aren’t really doing EA. They are doing technical architecture, or solutions architecture or something else with the word architecture after it. They are usually delivering on much shorter term tactical deliverables and not looking at the strategic horizon. Most times this looks too similar to engineering to justify the cost.

EA is by intent a holistic practice. John A. Zachman, the founding father of EA, who wrote an article titled “Architecture is Architecture is Architecture” talks about this. He developed his framework because it was difficult to show alignment between enterprise strategy and the implemented IT systems.

So then, what should you do?

Get Enterprise Architect

This may be the hardest part. Most architects have focused on the technical aspects of the job. The requisite ability for abstract thought, understanding complex systems, both technical and business aptitude, and the soft skills to be able to communicate those concepts are hard to find. That may mean a team of professionals working together to shore up each other’s skills. You’ll probably need external help to kick start your program.

Demand Information

Demand that your EA team maps out the business and the supporting people and technology. How long have you heard that it’s people, process and technology? Make them describe it. This goes well beyond the data that the business uses, although you’ll want to know that too. Who are the actors? What are the rules? What are the locations? How does it change over time?

Their goal is to fully describe the machine that runs the business. You need enough detail to drive value into strategic discussions. I have lamented that business process management did not gain more traction the way so many other IT and management fads have, but it still is a good tool to use here.

Partner

Understand that the answers you’ll get don’t belong to you. They are business answers. Demand that your EA team drive alignment. Get out in front and grease the rails to get them access to the right people. When it is done right, the EA becomes a filter through which all kinds of challenges can be communicated and understood.

Another way to think of this partnership and your EA’s scope is: Ask an Enterprise Architect and they’ll say their approach and value would better be expressed by reporting directly to the CEO, the Board or a strategy group rather than IT. They are probably reporting to you though because it is almost always IT that feels enough pain from enterprise-wide demand and cost pressure to justify the EA expense.

Get Value

You now have a tool to digest all kinds of potential changes. Use EA to do things like scenario planning. Your Enterprise Architects should be able to use their information to answer everything from “what happens if the business adds a new sales channel” or “how would we merge or spin up a new business venture” to “what impact does this new technical widget have”.

The Enterprise Architect should help you understand both the business and the technology that supports it well enough that you can ingest new concepts and demands in a way that lets you build a strategy and plan for getting to value. As new technical capabilities become available it’s easy to digest those to determine what they accelerate and see how they can or cannot help your holistic enterprise. As the business drives towards new strategies or deals with a changed business climate, you can see what parts of the machine need a tweak, change or complete overhaul in order to keep up.

Read Also

Architecture Is Architecture Is Architecture

John A. Zachman, Founder and President, Zachman International

The Business is Evolving and EA should too!

Alfred Goxhaj, CIO, Endurance [NYSE: ENH]