Enterprise architecture: Challenging the top 3 misconceptions

The first step in creating an IT infrastructure blueprint that supports corporate needs is to have an enterprise-wide view that encompasses both technology and business  - an approach that lies at the heart of Enterprise Architecture (EA)....

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The first step in creating an IT infrastructure blueprint that supports corporate needs is to have an enterprise-wide view that encompasses both technology and business  - an approach that lies at the heart of Enterprise Architecture (EA). However, applying an effective EA strategy depends on understanding what it is and how it works… a challenge given the debate and diverging opinions that continues to surround EA.

Rather like an adolescent who feels continually misunderstood, Enterprise Architecture has been suffering from an identity crisis since the day this new business function was named.  Indeed, this fact was eloquently debated recently in a podcast by a panel of Open Group experts who pointed out how EA is often confused with ‘Enterprise Transformation.’  The difference, according to Mark Blowers of Ovum, is that Enterprise architecture remains associated with an IT-centric approach - a differentiation that unfortunately doesn’t help since the very idea of an enterprise architecture is to create an operational environment that supports the business across the whole enterprise.

Here’s how the MIT Center for Information Systems Research (MIT CISR) defines EA: “The organising logic for business processes and IT infrastructure reflecting the integration and standardisation requirements of the company's operating model. The operating model is the desired state of business process integration and business process standardisation for delivering goods and services to customers.”  It is worth noting that this explanation talks about an IT infrastructure that conforms to the company’s operating model.

Now that we have a working definition, the question is: How can organisations apply EA effectively to create an IT infrastructure blueprint that is truly aligned to business needs?  Notice that the emphasis here is on the word ‘effectively’.  At the end of the day, whether or not EA is used effectively comes back to how well its functional dynamics are understood.  This then brings us back to the theme of this article: an attempt to shed light on the Enterprise Architecture and to dispel the three most popular misconceptions - which will give us a very good idea of what it EA is NOT. It is these misconceptions, above all else, that is holding back organisations from harnessing EA to effectively address their ever-changing business requirements.

1. Enterprise Architecture is neither a “point” solution architecture nor a departmental architecture

What does this mean?  Traditionally, the impetus for developing IT systems in an organisation has often been driven by the business needs within a particular department. Apart from the plausible exception of ERP systems, the concept of implementing systems that were common across the entire enterprise did not exist until the late 90s. With the advent of websites, the intranet and the extranet, however, middleware platforms began to be employed to carry out Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) in an attempt to knit together previously standalone systems so they can exchange information.  

EA is essential to enable extensible, scalable systems that can exchange data in a defined and yet flexible way.  And as the organisation grows, so does the number of systems that need to support EA. In order to manage this increasingly complex labyrinth of technology, an EA exercise thus becomes an almost mandatory process if IT is to be effectively aligned to the enterprise-wide business drivers and goals.

2.  Enterprise Architecture deals only with IT

If making IT business-centric is the name of the game, then it is vital there be an equal participation from IT teams and the company’s business units, both in terms of internal support and customer-facing functions. Indeed, the early part of the EA process must principally comprise workshops and one-on-one interviews with the business users of IT. This input is crucial for creating an appropriate EA vision for the enterprise. In other words, the executive sponsor for the EA exercise should be the entire executive and senior management team and not merely the CIO.

3.  Enterprise Architecture is for large and mature organisations only

An evolved and mature business environment typically comes with the baggage of traditional legacy systems with disparate technologies that are in various stages of their life-cycle. There are many reasons for this plethora, from a dependency on vendors and their proprietary systems to a culture of decentralised IT procurement. This is just the kind of landscape that calls for a corrective EA study - which begins by defining the roadmap towards harmonisation.   But EA is not just for large unwieldy operations: it also provides a strategic platform for nascent organisations that have relatively few systems.  By applying EA proactively they can avoid those heterogeneous, complex and expensive IT environments from developing in the first place - which gives them a leapfrog advantage. Either way, employing an EA strategy sooner than later will improve business efficiency and reduce the cost of legacy maintenance.  

Beyond that, the impact of EA on an organisation’s competitive advantage cannot be underestimated. We are now living in the age of realtime, where both internal and external customers expect to be able to access, collaborate and share information on the move - instantly. Supporting these ever-expanding expectations depends increasingly on the support of streamlined and standardised IT platforms.

Posted by David Miller, Senior Consultant, ImprovIT (www.improvIT.com); Dr. Hemant Adarkar, Principal Consultant & Navin Anand, Managing Partner, WhiteBox Business Solutions (www.whiteboxbiz.com)


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