Microsoft's 'breakthrough' in enterprise-architecture

A couple of weeks back, Gabriel Morgan of Microsoft’s internal Enterprise Strategic Planning unit posted an article on what he described as a ‘breakthrough’ in enterprise-architecture, “A Breakthrough: Maturing EA to be a Catalyst to Transform the Company“:

It’s time to rethink enterprise architecture people. Well, at least here in Microsoft IT’s Enterprise Architecture Team it is.

… For the past year or so, I’ve led a crack team of experts focused on aligning IT and the Business, and from this journey I wanted to share with you my current thinking. My team is called Enterprise Strategic Planning and it is a service team dedicated to enterprise-wide strategy and planning. Our initial goal is to become critical to the planning process with the intention of providing data to qualify an optimal set of IT Programs to invest in. … In this article I wanted to share with you something that has occurred to us during our journey and describe some changes we are making that I think is ground-breaking in the Enterprise Architecture domain.

Assuming a primary goal of EA is to align IT to the Business, the problem is that most, if not all, EA Frameworks are not equipped to actually deliver on this goal. They are limited to drawing associations from IT things … to Business things … . Some of the more mature EA teams have partnered with their finance department to apply financial modeling … to these associations to help describe business value in monetary terms and possibly start a chargeback model. These are all great accomplishments but at best they only capture how IT ‘relates’ to the Business. That is, these EA Frameworks and methods are more about IT transparency, not alignment.

I would have to admit that my first response to this would best be described as ‘unprintable’… 😐 (The polite version of ‘unprintable’ would look at certain key phrases in the above, such as “It’s time to rethink enterprise architecture, people”, “a crack team of experts” and “Assuming a primary goal of EA is to align IT to the Business”, and thence to make extremely disparaging remarks about Microsoft, about apparent arrogance, about a supposedly innovative company being literally years behind the leading edge of enterprise-architecture, about breakthroughs that aren’t, and about the vapidity and shallowness of IT-centric assumptions… Oh well…)

My second response, after I’d had a chance to calm down a bit, was perhaps a bit more charitable, if still more than a little sarcastic: something more along the lines of “Welcome to the club, glad to see you’ve woken up at last, any chance we can actually talk about enterprise architecture?” – because to most of us who have been working at that leading edge of EA-development, this supposed ‘breakthrough’ is very old news indeed. It’s actually the understanding that existed decades ago, before IT-architects came in and hijacked the entire industry; several of my IT-oriented clients had each reached that same point independently half a decade or more ago; and even the Open Group, after we’d nagged and bullied and cajoled them for so long, finally ‘got it’ late last year, with “evolving EA from IT to business” now becoming an explicit key theme of current Open Group (TOGAF) conferences. So in terms of the overall EA industry, there’s not a single thing that’s actually new in that Microsoft ‘breakthrough’: and hearing someone call it a ‘breakthrough’ is frustrating in the extreme.

But that second response still misses the point: this actually is a breakthrough – for Microsoft. Which, because of who Microsoft are, means that it’s also a real breakthrough in another sense as well.

Yes, it’s frustrating to note that, from what appears in the article, Morgan and his group seem not to know that much about any ‘prior art’ – not even from other Microsoft EAs such as Nick Malik, who writes a very good ‘Inside Architecture‘ column at the same MSDN weblog-host, and is even listed in the links on Morgan’s weblog. Yet there is real change here: important change. Take a look, for example, at the business-architecture references that Morgan lists later in the article:

There’s no IT directly involved in any of those models (unlike, say, Ross, Weill & Robertson’s much-lauded ‘Enterprise Architecture as Strategy‘, which still takes a strongly IT-centric view of business-strategy). For someone like Microsoft, whose whole business-focus is and revolves around IT, that absence of IT-centrism is huge… definitely a real breakthrough.

I also need to remember that my own role in enterprise-architecture is very different from theirs. Morgan and his team are practitioners, dealing with the day-to-day realities of real-world architecture in a very large organisation. I’m a practitioner, too, yes, but my own work these days is mostly about setting-up architecture practices, troubleshooting, and doing practice-refresh for existing architecture groups – it’s consultancy, not mainstream production-level architecture. So although I’m a practitioner, my practice is mostly about theory, futures, creating new tools and techniques: which means that if my work isn’t well ahead of the mainstream, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly. Yet that view gives me a rather jaundiced perspective of the industry: too easy to forget that it does take years – several years at least – for the ideas and themes and concepts that we’re working on now to filter down into everyday EA practice. In short, too easy for me to become arrogant about what I see as other people’s ‘arrogance’… Oops…

Coincidentally, Gartner published their current ‘EA Hype Cycle’ this week, described in a press-release and a one-page graphic. They state that there are now two distinct generations of EA: the ‘traditional’ IT-centric one, which has now reached what Gartner term ‘the Plateau of Productivity’; and an upcoming “more business-focused” version that will help to prevent EA from falling permanently into ‘the Trough of Disillusionment’.

To me, though, these two ‘generations’ respectively represent maturity-levels 2 (“clean up the mess”) and 3 (“top-down strategy”), out of five distinct maturity-levels, as described in my book ‘Doing Enterprise Architecture‘. There are at least two more ‘generations’ to go before we reach a fully usable architecture for the enterprise; and, worryingly, far too few architecture-teams seem to have properly implemented maturity-level 1 – “what business are we in?” – which in the longer term places the entire architecture at risk. (It’s not adequately addressed in either TOGAF or FEAF: TOGAF 9 does sort-of include part of it in a kind of half-baked form in the muddled mess that it describes as ‘Business Architecture’, but that’s about it. To me, the only major framework that does cover it properly is Kevin Smith’s Pragmatic EA, which is still not as well-known as it deserves to be.) So there’s a long way still to go – and a lot of repair-and-refresh to do, too, to clean up the problems caused by the IT-centrism of the existing ‘enterprise’-architecture frameworks.

But I’m wondering just how much this article of Morgan’s should change the view that Gartner shows us. Gartner shows ‘Business-Driven Architecture’ as having only just reached ‘the Peak of Inflated Expectations’: yet the TOGAF conferences, and now Morgan’s article, seem to show it much further on, more like the start of ‘the Slope of Enlightenment’. Fact is that Microsoft is just about as mainstream as they get: so if Microsoft’s EA has now turned beyond IT-centrism to a more explicit whole-of-business focus, what it really tells us is that business-driven architecture has just gone mainstream.

It’s still not a ‘real’ enterprise-architecture as I would understand the term: but it’s a heck of a lot better than than the old IT-centrism. That is a real breakthrough – and very good news indeed.

Watch This Space, at last?

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4 Comments on “Microsoft's 'breakthrough' in enterprise-architecture

  1. Interesting but still a lot of work on enterprise architecture still is driven from an alignment perspective. Any thoughts on linkages of EA to Business Agility or Innovation

  2. “Any thought on linkages of EA to Business Agility or Innovation”? – short answer is: “lots!” 🙂 Do you want the one-hour lecture, the six-week discussion or the three-year postgraduate course? 🙂 🙂

    On the assumption that you want ‘none of the above’ (and there ain’t the space here anyway), about the shortest summary I can give would be that:

    a) we need to structure our own EA practice around Agile-type principles (e.g. direct customer-engagement, for always on business deliverables, emphasise time-box rather than ‘features’, etc)

    b) in our modelling we need to emphasise dynamics rather than statics (e.g. Archimate-style linkages rather than Zachman-style pigeon-holes)

    c) we must be able to bridge across the whole enterprise, in a way in which everywhere and nowhere is the centre (i.e. classic IT-centric ‘enterprise’-architecture is exactly how not to do it)

    More detail in any of my books ( or slidedecks on Slideshare ( Or here, of course. 🙂

    Hope this helps?

  3. I’ve got to react to Chetan’s implication that EA being about “alignment” is somehow misplaced, and that instead it ought to be about agility and innovation.

    I think this confuses means and ends. Agility and innovation are means to the end of alignment. And I don’t mean just “business/IT” alignment. I mean alignment in the most general sense of “fitness for purpose”. For EA, this means alignment of an enterprise’s assets and capabilities with its vision, mission and strategy.

    As I have argued elsewhere, continuous change without alignment is simply continuous misalignment. If you don’t understand that we do architecture to ensure fitness for purpose (i.e., “alignment”) then agility only makes it possible for the enterprise to thrash faster. A discussion somewhere else prompted me to take out my copy of Christopher Alexander’s “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, and I was gratified to rediscover that Chapter 2 (Chapter 1 is “Introduction”) is titled “Goodness of Fit”.

    Sometimes I think that the elevation of agility and innovation to incontestably central values is simply another manifestation of IT-driven thinking about EA. If you take a broad enough perspective on the enterprise, it’s clear that agility and innovation are only two among very many possible concerns of stakeholders, and as architects we must attend to the needs of our stakeholders, not some preconceived notions of what must be important in every situation. I’m not saying that agility and innovation are unimportant, only that their importance is contextually determined. The one thing that architects must always attend to is fitness for purpose, as defined by the stakeholders.

    In this sense, architecture in general, and enterprise architecture in particular, can be as much about what must not change as it is about facilitating change.


  4. Many thanks, Len – all very good points, as usual.

    I very strongly agree that “the one thing that architects must always attend to is fitness for purpose, as defined by the stakeholders”. The only point I would add here is that ‘the stakeholders’ usually has – and needs – a much broader meaning than most business-folks (let alone IT-folks) would assign it: we need to take into account the whole extended-enterprise in which the organisation operates, for example, not just the organisation itself.

    I would also very strongly agree that agility etc are ‘means’, and should not be treated as ends in themselves. “I’m not saying that agility and innovation are unimportant, only that their importance is contextually determined”: exactly.

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