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Enterprise architecture goes agile?

For enterprise architects, the early days of EA were mostly about inventorying far-flung systems. This "documentation fever" may be giving way to enterprise architecture practices that lead to innovation and corporate agility. This and other matters were discussed at The Open Group Conference in Boston

Enterprise Architecture (EA) needs to evolve to better support more agile and innovative approaches to corporate challenges, a noted author and IT researcher told attendees at The Open Group Conference this week in Boston, MA - that means going beyond documenting the "as-is" state of the enterprise, and providing new guidance that helps transform the business.

This trend will see the move of enterprise architecture from the IT side to the business side, said Jeanne Ross, author of "Enterprise Architecture as Strategy" and "IT Savvy." It will prefigure a change of EA as it was formerly established, she suggested.

Today, architecture is fundamentally about business agility – nobody thought about it 15 years ago.
Jeanne Ross, director and principal research scientist, MIT's Center for Information System Research,

"Today, architecture is fundamentally about business agility – nobody thought about it 15 years ago," she said, pointing to earlier days when controlling software development was a major EA driver.

After a rash of high-profile software project fiascos in the 1990s, enterprise architecture and the accompanying enterprise architect role gained importance in organizations. EAs came in to bring order and discipline to a sometimes ragged development process.

Now, EA in organizations must evolve to encompass more agility, according to Ross, director and principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Information System Research.

Controlling EA

When controlling software development was a big EA driver, pain was felt particularly felt in smaller, fast growing companies. Sometimes there is some residual backlash toward EA.

"When companies are young, things are different," said Ross, who ceded that "architecture" is on occasions getting a little bit of a bad name. "Architecture creates control – when we are [a very new company] control is not what we need."

In fact, some architectural control can risk becoming an end in and of itself. "We need to focus on our business outcomes not just our architectural efforts," said Ross. "Sometimes, we can be doing really good architecture and not actually delivering value. It is a very scary thought."

Ross further cautioned that even agility is not an absolute value. "It doesn't apply to everything," she emphasized.

Early EA: Getting the house in order

Others see innovation taking on a more prominent role in EA. "Early enterprise architecture was about 'getting the house in order.' When we went from mainframes to distributed computing, we ended up with a lot of technologies, explosions of redundant data, and so on," said conference participant Brenda Michelson, who served as Chief Enterprise Architect for L.L. Bean before becoming principal of the Elemental Links consulting practice.

So, in the early 2000s, "organizations tapped somebody that could connect the dots, and help them rein it in," she said.

"The first iteration of enterprise architecture was about financial discipline and governance. And it got carried away. It became an ends – not a means. But now there is recognition of the need for agility, for the ability to manage continuous change," Michelson continued. She said the next generation has to focus much more on delivering tangible benefits.

The delicate balance of EA

"The demands of accounting for present system status and building valuable new systems calls for enterprise architects to achieve a delicate balance," said Leonard Fehskens, vice president and Global Profession Lead at The Open Group. "You have to know where you are in order to get to where you want to be, but you can't be too obsessive about it – because at some point there are diminishing returns," he said.

He continued: "There is sort of an assumption that you can't get someplace unless you know where you are. And there is truth to that. But you can spend an awful lot of time developing what they call the 'as-is' statement."

"You do not have to obsessively document for one reason, it's a futile exercise," Fehskens said. "It's going to change the minute you stop documenting it.

"But you do need to know enough about where you are to make it possible to figure out how you get to where you want to be – which is also a moving target," he said.

MIT's Ross had her own take on the short term-long term view as applied by enterprise architects today. She said that EA was still in some part an art form and that, at the core, the art of EA is figuring out how to meet short-term needs while building for the long term.

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