The enterprise architect's Achilles heel

Today's enterprise architects hail themselves as demi-gods within their organisation, but is this view still valid in an era where IT is driven by collaboration?

This blog post is going to get me into  trouble, but I think that the issue is worth discussing, so I wince as I hit the publish button, but here goes.

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to an Enterprise Architect describe enterprise architecture, its importance and role in an organisation. It was an illuminating discussion.

The enterprise architect who spoke saw architects as master designer of the enterprise, the person who knows everything about the enterprise, its systems, processes, organisation and relationships.  In the presenter’s own words

Enterprise architects compose holistic solutions that address the business challenges of the enterprise and support the governance needed to implement them. 

That got me thinking about creationism.  Creationism sits in opposition to the theory of evolution advocating that the world was created by a single all knowing, all seeing, all doing deity who composed and ordered the world.  The creator as intelligent designer is responsible for the intricacies, developments and mutations normally associated with evolution. The enterprise architect speaking likened himself and the discipline of enterprise architecture to being that ‘intelligent designer.’

According to the Wikipedia definition, an enterprise architect is a “person responsible for performing this complex analysis of business structure and processes and is often called upon to draw conclusions from the information collected.”  Continuing from Wikipedia, “as the purpose of architecture is: “INSIGHT, TO DECIDE, FOR ALL STAKEHOLDERS”, enterprise architects work very closely with the enterprise sponsor and key stakeholders, internal and external to the enterprise. The architect understands the enterprise mission, vision and strategy and the sponsor’s ideas about the approach.”

If this is not the description of at least a demi-god, then I do not know what it is.  I am not trying to poke fun at EA’s.  I respect the work they do and I have played that role myself on more than one occasion.  But the degree to which EA has puffed itself up requires letting some air out of the role and making some room for the rest of us in determining the future of our enterprise.

They and EA in general is falling into a trap of absolutism.  The idea that there is only one way, one authority, one direction for something as complex as a business.  It is the kind of trap that Nicholas Taleb covered in his excellent article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal “Learning to Love Volatility.”  He points out that rigid structures, the kind that form around absolutes are vulnerable to volatility.  Too often these structures are ‘architected’ by people who believed they knew better.

Are enterprise architects the ‘creators’ or ‘intelligent designers’ of their organisations?  It certainly seems so in the definitions and descriptions used by many enterprise architects, who believe that without architecture an enterprise cannot exist.  They see ‘architecture’ as bringing structure along absolute principles and guidelines.  Is the Zachman framework all that different from Aristotle’s classification scheme, or the four bodily humours that guided medicine for more than 1000 years?  From Zachman’s own site, italics added by me.

“Since The Zachman Framework™ classification was observed empirically in the structure of the descriptive representations (the architecture) of buildings, airplanes and other complex industrial products, there is substantial evidence to establish that The Zachman Framework™ is the fundamental structure for Enterprise Architecture and thereby yields the total set of descriptive representations relevant for describing an Enterprise.”

Enterprise architects start on a slippery slope based on the explicit comparison of an enterprise with other man-made entities, such as airplanes, buildings, and other industrial products.  EA’s conclusion that a company is fundamentally the same as other engineered products means that they believe an organisation can be analysed, designed, and governed in the same way. That is the fallacy gives EA a  ’creationist’ flavor, unfortunately in  human and social organisations there are few absolutes.

The issue here is that EA’s  see themselves as the unique and ultimate intelligent designer of the enterprise and woe to an organisation that operates differently. Enterprise architects profess a supernatural understanding and power over the enterprise. The discipline believes that it brings order out of chaos, strategy to the masses, tell us our place (organisation), our work (process), our tools (technology) and how our value (metrics).

Enterprises are not man-made artefacts that can be deconstructed, analysed, designed, and optimised like machines or buildings. Enterprises are social constructs that evolve organically around explicit and implicit agreements between the diverse group of stakeholders and actors.

An enterprise is a social-technical entity driven by humans.  Enterprises are not entirely organic or always self-emerging but a curious mix between design and emergence that is hard to describe from a purely logical/analytical perspective.  The idea that enterprise architects are the only ones with the breadth of knowledge, intellectual horsepower and perspective to design how an enterprise works is a business equivalent to divine intervention.

Enterprise architecture needs a reset

I point this out because I believe that enterprise architecture and many enterprise architects have gone too far, become too full of themselves and too full in their belief that architecture trumps strategy, the CEO, the market, etc.   The result is that what should be a highly effective management tool is compromised into academic debates of the need for and what constitutes enterprise architecture.

Now I know that not every EA or architecture supports this extreme, but after hearing this enterprise architect speak I just had to ask myself – who  does he think his is and whom does he think he is talking to?

It is a sign of weak analysis to believe that any one person, one team or group can place itself above all others in the modern corporation.  It is also a sign of weak management to endorse such a view that leads to strategic constipation when we need strategic participation. Such extreme hierarchicalism and hubris are clear signs of How the Mighty Fall according to Jim Collins and others.

This is one of the reasons why I believe that the future of IT rests in an enlightened approach to technology rather than a renaissance of classic IT practices – that includes an enlightened approach to enterprise architecture.

A word of explanation before we open the floor to comments

Before you comment on this post about they author’s intellectual capacity, understanding of architecture, appreciation for the challenges facing organisations, etc.  Please be aware that I believe that architecture is an important tool, that an overall view is important and we need to manage complexity.  So this is not against EA as a discipline or practice, but rather that it’s worth considering that it’s gone too far and needs a reset.

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs.

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