The structure of enterprise architecture

This one’s a pick-up from a ‘tweet’ by Colin Wheeler, replying to John Polgreen:

Depends on the true definition of each. One person said to me that there is no business without information, one and same.

Red-rag-to-bull time for me: in effect that “one person” is saying that business is only information, which is about as insanely IT-centric as one can get. So yes, I exploded:

“business=information” is VERY dangerous! business = transactions + conversations + relations + purpose

…which in classic Twitter style is probably too compressed and cryptic to make any sense at all… oh well. 🙂 But worth expanding on here.

The line about “transactions + conversations + relations + purpose” is an expansion on the old Cluetrain tag-line that “markets are conversations”, using a crosslink to the ancient ‘four dimensions’ of physical, virtual, relational and aspirational that I use in most of my work on enterprise architecture (EA):

  • physical ‘things’
  • virtual information and imagined space
  • relations between people
  • aspirations for individual and shared purpose

Transactions may be physical, virtual, relational etc; conversations are a composite of virtual information and relations between people; and so on, and so on. The architecture of the enterprise must support every required combination of these themes.

But classic ‘enterprise architecture’ strips all of this down to a tiny subset: the small segment that can be handled exclusively by IT systems. It then turns this round, and says that business is computer-based information – hence the IT-centric delusion that IT is the sole centre of the business world. It’s true that we can just-about get away with this delusion when the business genuinely is information-centric – as in insurance, finance or banking – but even then it’s all too easy to forget about the other dimensions, as the banks did when they set out to dismiss the relational aspects of business by closing all their retail branches, and then wondered why they had no customers left… sure, it produced significant short-term savings but very nearly at a cost of killing the business. Not wise… In any other industry, from aviation to logistics to manufacturing to retail to utilities to pharma to telco to… well, anything, really… that IT-centric delusion means that the resultant EA rapidly becomes worse than useless: its blinkered view actively hinders the development of the business, because it all but ignores anything other than IT-based information. Which, right now, is precisely why so many organisations are challenging the value of their EA. Not wise, on either side…

So there’s a general warning here to every architect. If someone says “no business without information”, they’re right: information is an essential aspect of business – though it may come in many different forms, from conversations to scraps of paper to ideas drifting in from the aether as well as in electronic records sitting in a data-centre or on a screen. But whenever anyone throws in an exclusional rider, such as “no business without information, one and same” – that business is only information – that should set alarm-bells ringing straight away. The business and its architecture always involve all of the dimensions – physical, virtual, relational, aspirational – all of them, interweaving, always. Anyone who says otherwise is deluding themselves, and others, trying to take some over-simplified ‘easy way’ such as IT-centrism that always works out to be harder in the long run. You have been warned! 🙂

9 Comments on “The structure of enterprise architecture

  1. Hi Tom,
    I thought I would just have to respond to that. I guess I should clarify. If by Enterprise, we mean “one or more people acting together to achieve a common goal”, then I can concur that you have a point.
    However, as soon as we bring “companies” or “corporations” into the whole scenario, now we are talking about legislated ownership and concepts surrounding that. A company is nothing but information. It cannot exist without the ownership agreement from the government or governments that it operates under and exists only at their whim (as seen when companies or corporations are nationalised). Therefore the company itself and most enterprise that we see in today’s environment exists only as an informational link to things that actually happen in reality. That railway that you built, yes, it exists but the enterprise is really built around who owns it, or more to the point, who the government allows to own it, and I think we can all agree that ownership is strictly an informational aspect of something real in the world.
    If we were to go back to a barter system, and you received real goods for your labour or your trade, then maybe we could move away from information being the measure of everything. But until then while we have semi-standardised and legislated value system that we use (money), information will be the only way to determine the reality around us.
    So, I hope you can see that this has nothing to do with a technology based argument around why there is not business without information.
    Colin Wheeler

  2. I don’t agree that “business is only information” is necessarily IT-centric. It’s I-centric.

    And if you regard any manifestation of information whatever as technological, then that’s pretty T-centric. Okay, pencils and paper are technological instruments too, invented by the ancient Chinese or whatever. Enterprise architects often over-generalize, but that’s probably going too far.

  3. Colin –
    I take your points, but still disagree. 🙂
    Your comment about enterprise vs company: I think we agree there. It’s one reason why I draw a strong distinction between ‘enterprise’ – which is a social entity – and ‘organisation’ or ‘company’ – which, as you say, is a legal entity.

    Where I disagree is your assertion that “a company is nothing but information”. Okay, you can argue a rather specious special-case in that the existence of a company is a matter of record (i.e. information), but beyond that it is held together by _purpose_ – an aspirational asset more than an informational one. (This is true even in law, in Britain at least: the _purpose_ of a company must be described in its charter. It’s usually glossed over, but the requirement is there for a very good reason, because purpose is ultimately what holds the entity together.)

    To say that ownership is ‘informational’ is to _seriously_ miss the point, function and nature of ownership. 🙂 This is true whether the ownership is in a possession-economy (money or barter) or a responsibility-based economy (many [most?] ‘traditional’ societies). Ownership is a complex composite of relational and aspirational dimensions with a small amount of information-dimension (and, in some contexts, physical-dimension – e.g. fences) to mark the boundaries. The information is trivial; the relational/aspirational aspects are core.

    Likewise equating with money as ‘the value’ is, to be rather blunt about it, just plain dumb. 🙂 Is money the _only_ value that you use in your relationship with your own work and clients, for example? Short answer: no. So why on earth say that it is? Doing so not only make no sense, but causes _real_ problems further down the line, when you build performance-metrics that are measuring meaningless information, and ignoring information that _is_ meaningful in the context.

    I agree entirely that “there is no business without information”: the whole point of the post was whether it is _only_ information, “one and the same”. Clearly the notion that a business is _only_ information is, to again put it bluntly, just plain ‘stoopid’. And since it clearly is stupid, yet equally clearly you’re not, I just kinda wonder why you promote that notion, is all? 🙂

  4. Richard –
    Uh… did I say anywhere in this post that information is only IT? Did I try to make a point that information technology could only be computer-based? Short answer to both: no. Please, you’re attacking a straw-man that isn’t there, and missing the point of the post that _is_ there: the danger of viewing the business solely in informational terms.

    IT-centrism is an extreme example and, to some extent, _consequence_ of thinking of a business solely in informational terms. The post was not about IT-centrism as such. You’re very skilled at critique, and I value it from you, because it helps me clarify my own thinking – but please critique what’s actually there in the post! 🙂

  5. Tom

    Your exact words were: “business is only information, which is about as insanely IT-centric as one can get”. So I was merely wondering how the T got into that sentence.

    I do agree with the general thrust of your objection to Colin’s statement that “business is only information”. Colin’s argument also leads to the conclusions that money is only information, human identity is only information, and so on. Perhaps he would like Umberto Eco’s suggestion that nuclear weapons are only information.

    Saying A is only B is a reductionist strategy – we can reduce A to B. Holistic thinking generally warns us against trying to reduce A to B. We can’t reduce a business to information any more than we can reduce an enterprise to a set of UML classes, a railway system to an abstract network topology, human consciousness to a set of chemical and electrical brain signals, or health to the absence of certain pathogens. Of course, that kind of reduction (or projection) can sometimes produce useful maps, but the map is not the territory.

  6. Hi Tom,
    First let me apologise that this will go from a business is/is not equal to information to a “hippy” post.
    I guess there is an easy and simple reason why I have done this. It is part of my “play devil’s advocate” suite of techniques. I think it worked very well in this case because you hit nail on the head with your response.
    Allow me to propose the following little thought experiment around this:
    1. Premise: All business exists under the aegis of government sponsored corporate ownership.
    2. Premise: Value is dictated by money.
    3. Premise: Enterprise is different from business.
    This leads us to the point that we have to conclude that the value of ownership of anything in business is in the measure of money.
    My tried to come at my argument from a “well then”:
    1. Business equals money.
    2. Money is nothing more than information.
    3. Therefore business is nothing but information.
    You argued that:
    1. Ownership through responsibility (accountability and responsibly as in RACI as I see these things).
    On this point of view I fully agree with you, but:
    1. Government does not do enough to help support that argument.
    2. Society does not do enough to help support that argument.
    3. Individuals do not do enough to help support that argument.
    Inherently in a way I am trying to point out that business being nothing but money and information is actually very bad state of affairs because:
    1. We can dehumanise money.
    When we take personal accountability or responsibility for something, I believe that it generates much higher rewards for us personally than money in isolation does. Therefore I would like to see the world change its perceptions slightly to try and see the following way forward:
    1. Money must equal access to resources.
    2. Business must be based on enterprise.
    3. Enterprise must be about improving things other than just the amount of money available.
    4. Goals are more fulfilling when we are personally attached to them through accountability and responsibility.
    5. Business that is an enterprise should have a goal that is not just about increasing the amount of money available.
    6. The value of goals in enterprise must be personal fulfilment through accountability and responsibility and not just “get more money”.
    Then we will find ourselves in a world where enterprise benefits all.
    From my point of view we must understand:
    1. Money has no inherent personal value.
    2. Business has no inherent personal value.
    3. Information has no inherent personal value.
    1. Typically goals that are not based on “only money” have inherent personal value.
    2. That value can only be realised through taking accountability and responsibility for them.
    3. Money, business and information are only tools like capitalism through which we can take one path to realise our personal goals.
    So in conclusion, I believe we have so far arrived at a point where we could most probably agree that without personal accountability and responsibility, business is nothing but information and this is not a desirable state.
    I am hoping that we can drive this to a end state where people, society and government realise that the amount of resources that we each need is only just enough for us to reach our personal goals. As a person I don’t care particularly about money, I just want access to the resources that will allow me to achieve my personal goals. Having more money than that would be classified under what I term greed and I believe we should combat that. When we have excess, we should enable other people’s realisation of their goals and that will make the world a better place, which I think should be the primary goal.

  7. Hi Colin

    Thanks very much for the long and carefully-detailed reply.

    Unfortunately I must reject several of your premises, since to me they do not have adequate real-world grounding.

    For example, #1: “All business exists under the aegis of government sponsored corporate ownership.” This is simply not true: many businesses operate under different legal models. Government itself is one example; co-operatives are another; charities and NGOs are another; partnerships and sole-traders yet another; in Britain at least, lawyers and other organisations to which limited-liability laws may not apply are yet another again. They all operate under particular laws, but not all of those models are subject to corporate law, or the specific rules that apply to regulated for-profit organisations. As with TOGAF, you appear to be assuming that the narrow subset that you choose to work with _is_ the whole – and ignoring the more subtle complexities of the real, much broader whole.

    #2 “Value is dictated by money”. I’m sorry, but I’m going to be absolutely blunt about this: that assertion is not only just plain stupid, but is actively toxic in any_ business environment. Yes, it is what responsibility-free shareholders would like to believe, yet it is simply _not_ how companies function in practice. See any of the research behind Balanced Scorecard, for example, or corporation social responsibility and reputation management: doing so would be essential to disabuse yourself of this _dangerous_ delusion. To quote Michael Porter, the obsession with shareholder-value is “the Bermuda Triangle of strategy”: if we really want to destroy a company, keep the attention focused on the moeny and nothing else. But if you want the company to thrive, it’s essential to pay attention to almost anything and everything _except_ the money – because in reality, that’s where the money comes from. Money is important, yes, especially in a commercial context: but _in practice_ it’s almost the worst possible metric to use to guide strategy. And to my mind EA is a tool for support of strategy – hence the focus of this thread.

    #3: “Enterprise is different from business”. I would agree with that statement, but I don’t know whether we understand that term in the same way. To me ‘business’ (aka ‘the organisation’) is a legal entity, with explicit boundaries and its own explicit rules and governance, and in which governance may be asserted by fiat. ‘Enterprise’ (aka ‘the extended enterprise’) is an amorphous entity without clear boundaries, but always at least one step larger than the business or organisation in scope (examples: markets or supply-chains in which the business is a player) and is often subject to multiple conflicting laws, regulations and mores; it has its own distinctive governance, but in which the business cannot enforce its will by fiat, but only via negotiation.

    Another key point is that the usual definition of ‘enterprise’ (e.g. IEEE-1471) is that it is a _collective_ agreement to “co-ordinate efforts and resources towards a common set of missions or goals”. The distinctions that you seem to make between personal and collective (at the end of your comment) are thus largely irrelevant – in fact could be and should be taken as exactly confirming my point that value is much broader than money, and that money is a poor metric for measuring business value.

    Your second set of premises: #1 “Business equals money” – we’ve already disposed of that one. If you haven;t grasped this point yet, yes, you are possibly safe in pure IT-architecture, for example, but you should _not_ attempt any form of business-architecture: _you will destroy the organisation if you hold this perspective as the core theme of the architecture_.

    #2: “Money is nothing more than information”. I would politely yet firmly suggest that this is wishful thinking, again making out that a self-selected subset is the same as the whole. (Note De Bono’s classic warning about the ‘must-be mistake’: in most cases, usage of phrases such as ‘nothing more than’ should immediately flag that the entity is actually ‘a great deal more than’.) One of the core themes about money – especially money as valuation – is that it is primarily anchored in _belief_ – i.e. qualitative, not quantitative. Ignoring the qualitative elements makes the accounting easier, but at a very high risk of ‘inexplicable’ catastrophic failure.

    Given that I cannot accept your premises, I cannot accept the rest of your argument. To me it not only makes little or no sense in real business practice, but is also _actively_ dangerous to the organisation. And I have some fairly solid business-figures to back me in this: Charles Handy, for example, or VISA’s Dee Hock, Shell’s Arie de Geus, or corporate guidelines such as the ‘HP Way’, Johnson & Johnson’s ‘Credo’, the Shell Business Principles or Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ etc.

    I would be happy to talk further about this, but I fear our premises are so far apart than to do so might well be an exercise in frustration and futility. Best if we just agree to disagree?

  8. I love the way you have posed the counter and agree/disagree with you with you…

    Playing “devil’s advocate” there are just as many examples like Enron to back up my initial premises as there are examples to back up your not agreeing with them. My point is to make sure that we understand that both philosophies exist and that we are able to observe both and pick the “best” way forward through them. I would actually like to take this post when it is played out and make a module for my course out of it.

    Yes, I agree that we should not be using money as a measure for value. Yes, I agree with you that shareholders must have accountability. I also believe that ethics is a more “valuable” way of achieving this than “governance”.

    The questions then really are, what do we use to measure value and how to we get shareholders and stakeholders to accept accountability and take on responsibility? From our point of view as well, how can Enterprise Architecture support this?

    I like the set of examples that you have provided where this does happen (for instance Google’s “Do no Evil”, which incidentally should also asks how we measure evil) and propose massive support for places this does happen.

    I hope that this has been a useful debate so far. 🙂

  9. It’s more likely I’m the ‘devil’s advocate’ here – your comments reflect the mainstream business-school view, anyway – but yeah, I’ll accept that your aim is to push the debate. It does get a bit frustrating, though, when the premises you’ve used have so little real foundation that it feels not so much a debate as a pointless put-down. I’ve had quite enough ‘wrong-making’ already from people who really don’t what the heck they’re talking about: I know you do know your business-architecture, but this still too often felt more like an exercise in futility than a healthy debate. But I’m glad it’s been of some use, anyway: if nothing else, it’s helped push me to explain my position better, I suppose. :wrygrin: So yeah, thanks again.

    I suppose if you take a pure realpolitik view, Enron would seem to be a ‘good’ example: just note, however, what impact a ‘money-only’ focus actually had on the long-term viability of the company… :wrygrin:

    As a business/enterprise architect, my role is decision-support, not decision-making: I don’t run the clients’ company, and I don’t make its business decisions, But I _am_ responsible to advise the client about the impact of unacknowledged factors, and the dangers of using inappropriate metrics to guide their decisions. In that sense, to use Porter’s term again, it is my responsibility to warn the client of the real dangers of “the Bermuda Triangle of strategy” – an over-focus on money as a measure of ‘value’.

    As I see it, every enterprise is different – has a different vision – and hence the metrics needed to measure conformance to that vision will also vary. One of the more complex trade-offs is the relationship between the needed metrics for the business – which in a commercial context do use money as a necessary member of the metrics-set – and those held by the extended-enterprise – in which money may not have a high priority at all. The balance across that trade-off is a core factor in reputation-management, which in turn is a key factor in long-term viability (aka ‘profitability’, for a commercial organisation). So I don’t have a fixed set of metrics, but I do use a suite of tools and techniques to guide metrics-choices – for example, the SEMPER diagnostic/metric, which uses language-content to identify the probable ‘ability to do work’ across a wide range of business dimensions ( see ).

    Again, as such, this isn’t about ‘do-good’ politics or the like: it’s straight _business_ sense, about identifying conditions for long-term sustainability of the business and its enclosing enterprise. A ‘money-only’ or ‘information-only’ focus appeals to those who like to think of themselves as ‘hard-headed’: but from my perspective, it’s just poor-quality thinking, using the easy subset that seems ‘controllable’ rather than facing up to the deeper and more subtle complexities – human and otherwise – that actually underpin the viability of every enterprise.

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