Enabling enterprise-architecture conversations

Architects are designers too. Application-architecture designs link across an array of applications, process-architects design ways to link processes together, business-architects design business-models and their linkage into the everyday practices of the organisation. That much should be obvious, I would presume.

Yet in practice – and certainly as the scope widens – more and more of our actual day-to-day work consists of creating and enabling new conversations: architectural conversations between business and IT and anyone and everyone else in the overall enterprise. The ‘one idea’ of all architecture is that things work better when they work together, with efficiency, with clarity, on purpose: and to make that happen, we need to get people to talk with each other. Simple as that, really.

One practical problem we face is that the architecture tools that we have available to us at present are not that well-suited to that purpose. For some conversations, yes – but those tend to be the most technical of the conversations. For the ordinary-yet-important conversations with everyday stakeholders, we’re not well-served at all. And as we move more and more out of the purely technical domains and towards a true ‘architecture of the enterprise’, the more that gap is going to get in our way.

One tool to rule them all?

What we really need is something that’s probably impossible in practice: a single tool that will cover the whole spectrum from the loose, freehand sketching and storyboarding of architectural issues and requirements, all the way through to the tight rigour and discipline that we need in specifications for real-world design and implementation.

We also need that imaginary ‘one tool’ to cover another whole spectrum of usages, from centralised repositories and very large ‘scorecard/analysis’ displays through to multi-screen desktops to single-screen laptops to tablets and touchpads right down to handhelds and smartphones.

The big, expensive enterprise-architecture toolsets such as System Architect or ARIS or Troux Metis tend to sit over in one corner of the matrix between those two spectra: they embody the formal rigour of software-, system- or process-design and simulation, and they need big repositories, big servers and big displays to deliver their best performance. These are also definitely not tools that should (or even can) be used by general users – a fact I know from painful first-hand experience of the months we had to spend tidying up the mess that our business-managers made of our repository after we’d foolishly allowed them to play with it for a single week…

Then there’s the mid-range: toolsets such as Avolution or BizzDesign Architect or Sparx Enterprise Architect, or Alfabet or Essential. All of these are well suited to laptops and other larger single-screen systems, and each tend to emphasise particular themes: metamodelling with Avolution or Essential, for example, or Archimate business/IT-alignment with BizzDesign or Sparx, or IT-infrastucture configuration with Alfabet. They all have some kind of internal repository, which in turn supports some kind of diagramming; but it’s not always easy to share – especially across a whole multi-organisation enterprise. And these are still tools for specialists – not something that we can use with everyday business-folk, as I discovered the hard way when I presented a set of BPMN diagrams at an executive-meeting…

Down in the far corner, though, there’s almost nothing: no usable toolsets for idea-thrashing with ops-staff, developers, executives and all the other myriad non-specialists. Office tools such as Powerpoint and Visio are just-about-okay for documentation after the event – though they provide little to no support for architecture-rigour at all – but they’re far too slow and cumbersome for real-time discussion. So it’s no surprise that for most architects I know, their most important tools are a whiteboard and a sketchpad – and not only do those provide no linkage to formal architecture-rigour, but it’s usual not even possible to record and share the results. Which means that we have almost nothing with which we can engage people in the architecture itself – in the discipline of the architecture.

But what would such a toolset look like? What aspects of architecture-discussions could it cover?

Enabling interactive conversations on architectures

One project that I’ve been involved in (as a member of its alpha-test team) is Alex Osterwalder’s iPad app for his Business Model Canvas framework – perhaps take a look at the videos on Alex’s post. That’s also a key reason why I developed the Enterprise Canvas concept, to extend the same basic idea to the whole-of-enterprise scope. And there’s also a swathe of iPad or smartphone apps that cover themes such as sketching or mindmapping or outlining or project-management, that do at least enable us to record in a form which can be stored and re-used later.

The real aim, though, is to get to some kind of toolset that is freeform enough to be used in live discussions, yet beneath the surface embeds at least some of the rigour needed for architecture-development. There are some great hints towards this in an article in HBR by Michael Schrage, ‘How Your Smartphone Will Transform Your Elevator Pitch‘, which are worth noting in some detail here:

… His [business-idea] was undeniably clever, but aspects of his business model weren’t clear to me. He had his elevator pitch answers down pat, but I wanted to learn more. Unprompted by me, Osman whipped out his smartphone and handed it over. I was watching a decent video clip illustrating his product’s features and functionality. I could tap to hear testimonials. I could tap to play with a simulation of the software. In a matter of moments, the device had transformed Osman from an entrepreneur I was having a conversation with to a guide and narrator of an interactive experience. My focus and attention alternated between what he said and what appeared onscreen. Sometimes he’d take, touch, and hand back the device; other times, I’d point to something onscreen and ask another question.

The object — and our interaction with it — became an intimate part of our conversation. We couldn’t have discussed either [his product] or his answers to my questions the same way without it. An idle part of me wondered how cool it would be if our conversation (and my questions) could be recorded and time-stamped along with what was appearing onscreen. Osman refused to allow his smartphone to decay into a sales tool or product pitch — although those elements were baked into the material — and instead used the device as a medium to both reinforce his conversation points and invite new questions and comments from me.

I can say without hesitation that this felt technically and interpersonally different from “laptop-on-the-table” presentations I’d experienced 1,000 times. We were standing up, drinking coffee, chatting, and taking turns holding, viewing, and manipulating this device. The kinesthetics, eye contact, questions, and interruptions revolved as much around the device as us. We would have been worse off without it.

And, further on in the article:

Elevator pitches are important. The ability to boil down the essence of your innovation into a tasty forty-second sound-bite remains essential. Only now, the pervasiveness, ubiquity, and visuality of mobile devices quantitatively and qualitatively changes the ecology of interpersonal interaction. It’s no longer about what you say and how you say it; it’s increasingly about what you hand over.

What do you hand over that transforms the conversation? What do you hand over that visually and interactively adds value to your spoken words? What do you hand over that complements and supplements your pitch? What do you hand over that invites and inspires the curiosity you want? What do you hand over that makes you more persuasive?

… “Hand-it-over” innovation pitches can be seamlessly slipped wherever your prospects desire. Indeed, an excellent measure of “hand-it-over” effectiveness is whether the person who you “hand-it-over” to actually asks you to send what they’ve been seeing and interacting with.

So let’s summarise some of the key themes there:

  • it’s not a presentation, it’s an interaction – a two-way or multiway conversation
  • the interaction is kinesthetic – it involves touch (ie. handling and interacting with the device) as well as listening and seeing
  • if practicable, the interaction itself should be recorded, as an annotation on the original presentation
  • if practicable, it should be possible that the whole interaction can be shared

Beyond the whiteboard

That’s what we need for that part of our enterprise-architecture work – a toolset that enables us to engage directly with our stakeholders. And it needs to go both ways, too: to take a model or diagram from the formal ‘big-system’ part of the toolset-spectrum and share it and discuss it; and also enable and capture discussions about requirements, about trade-offs, about different understandings and paradigms and worldviews and expectations and assumptions across all the myriad of different perspectives in the enterprise. Both ways. About anything – about any aspect of the architecture.

Which also means that we must have some kind of language to enable us to move information up and down through that spectrum, across different devices, different systems, different toolsets. (It seems very unlikely that one vendor will ever cover the whole range that we need – but the information itself must be able to move around in any form that we need, yet always anchored back to the formal rigour required by each architecture-domain.) So that’s another hurdle to cross, because no such language exists at present.

So, given all of this, how could we improve on the venerable whiteboard and sketchpad? How could or would we record that kind of interaction? And how can we support a form of diagramming that is as interactive and illustrative as a whiteboard-session, yet still enables the underlying rigour? The specialist EA toolsets may be too cumbersome for this kind of interactive use, but surely we can create something with more rigour than Powerpoint or Visio?

That’s our challenge here. Comments/suggestions, anyone?

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