Business process frameworks, enterprise road maps, end-to-end operations and centralised architecture: Savvy CIOs use terms like those a lot these days. They all refer to an enterprise's highly complex yet continually tweaked and modified processes and their IT blueprints for doing business and turning a profit. In many cases, they represent the very source of a company's competitive advantage.

Developing these blueprints and then ensuring that various business units and divisions sprawled about the globe operate in sync with them is the increasingly critical role of the chief architect.

"Architects are really important, and they're going to be growing in importance," says Brian Cobb, senior vice president of mortgage operations and former vice president of technology infrastructure and operations at Fannie Mae.

Cobb and his team have spent 18 months re-engineering business processes at the government-sponsored enterprise and developing what he calls an "enterprise reference model" on which to run a more flexible and responsive business. "Now we're building against that architecture, which is a key tool to compete in the current economic environment," he says.

Xerox CIO John McDermott describes the role of chief architect as "the hardest job in any IT organisation."

"The most difficult set of skills to recruit are blindingly brilliant IT architects," McDermott says. "It's an almost impossible job because of the scope of process knowledge you need to possess and the scope of [technical] knowledge you need on how to enable that process architecture."

At Xerox, the role is filled not by a single person, but rather in a center of excellence "where we combine and collocate business process owners with technology platform owners. That makes the challenge more manageable," he says.

Cummins CIO Bruce Carver says his company "has just made a fairly sizable investment in the architecture function." The reason, says Carver: "It's central to our success."

The diesel engine maker's goal is to streamline operations by, among other things, leveraging the same fundamental business rules and technology across its various divisions and business units, which span 70 countries. At the same time, Cummins is dispersing more and more technology-savvy business experts into various business functions.

The upshot: "As we start to have more technology-savvy people in the organization, they'll go off and convince business leaders that they need a solution, and at the end of the day, it will drive up costs and we'll have incompatibility issues," says Carver. This, he says, is where the chief architect plays a critical role in building or buying any and all technology so that it fits into the overall blueprint.

At State Street, the architect role is so important that CIO Chris Perretta elevated the position to report directly to him.

"The reason and the fact of the matter is that how we build things matters," he says. "It's not just an intellectual exercise. It has a material impact on the performance of the organisation."

Next: There's more to an IT career than technology