RBP-EA: From ‘Really Big Picture’ into real-world practice

This continues the themes of the previous posts, ‘The Really Big Picture for enterprise-architecture‘ and RBP-EA: The dangers of business-centric ‘enterprise’-architecture.

Much like strategy, enterprise-architecture is one of the few business-disciplines that explicitly focusses on the mid- to longer-term future. As such, one of the unfortunate side-effects is that much of what we do is at risk of being labelled ‘ivory-tower thinking’ – and especially so when we talk about the Really Big Picture, the huge changes that, whether we like them or not, are going to come up over the next few years and decades.

So what I want to do here is show that even the Really Big Picture ideas and concerns are really important to all of us not just somewhere in the indefinite (and ignorable?) future, but for everyday EA-practice right now.

A bit of background

Right now I’m just short of sixty years old. Before I moved fully into enterprise-architecture almost a decade ago, I worked as a professional futurist; I’d spent most of the previous ten years or so working in aircraft research, and before that had, in essence, ‘careered’ from place to place and industry to industry for a couple of decades or more. I actually started out as a graphic designer; my first published work was as an illustrator in child-development. To many people, I’m best known for my work on skills-research, eventually using the somewhat peculiar disciplines of dowsing as my main test-case. I came into computing via the pre-press industry, eventually creating and running one of the first true desktop-publishing operations in Britain – and writing most of the software for it, too – several years before even the first Macintosh hit the streets. Most of what I’ve worked on has had wildly different timescales: from the instant perishability of ‘news’, right through to the literal lifetime and more of medical records and large-scale infrastructure. I’ve never yet been an employee: always either a contractor, an independent consultant, or an entrepreneur in my own right. And I’ve had homes on three distinct continents, worked in one way or another in at least a dozen different countries, and in well over a dozen different industries. In other words, I’ve been around for a while, seen a few things, learnt a bit in my time. Always learning; always something new.

To me, that’s a fairly typical background for an enterprise-architect. (It isn’t a common background for many people who happen to call themselves ‘enterprise-architects’ – many of them have never placed a foot outside of IT in their entire working lives. But to be blunt I don’t and can’t regard them as enterprise-architects anyway: at best, they’re indulging in a ‘term-hijack‘ that creates enormous risks and doesn’t help anyone at all.) Quite a lot of us are older folks – in our 40s, 50s or more – but there’s also an exciting new generation of younger enterprise-architects (such as Bas van Gils, Gerold Kathan, Ondrej GalikIyigun Cevik and Sinan Si Alhir, to perhaps-unfairly select out a few of them) who tend to come from backgrounds other than solely IT and seem to have made a strong effort to cover as broad a space as possible in a very short time.

We may all come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different experiences, different disciplines. But what we all have in common is an emphasis on breadth, and an ability to make connections across any parts of that breadth, and beyond. And help to put those connections into real everyday practice, in support of the respective organisation’s aims.

In short, enterprise-architects show how go from the Big Picture to the practical detail – “linking strategy to execution”, as one colleague put it.

But I suggest we also need to take more care to link back to the Really Big Picture – and that’s what this series of posts will be about.

The Really Big Picture

What I’m calling ‘the Really Big Picture’ is a set of fundamental shifts that will start to impact fairly soon at every conceivable scale. These shifts will be forced on us by the confluence of a number of distinct yet interrelated strands – in particular, increasing complexity, increasing global-scale interdependency, increasing resource-constraints, and several serious sustainability issues.

The point here is that many of the assumptions of current Business As Usual – such as the notion of continuous growth, embedded right into the core of most current economic theories and models – simply will not work under the conditions imposed by this shift. If we want architectures that will continue to work up to and through that transition, we need to be starting to embed those new principles into our current architecture-work.

This is going to be made a lot harder for two key reasons:

  • most of the shifts at the Really Big Picture level are taking place over the medium- to longer-term – years to decades – but most of the people we work with, and work for, prefer only to understand things in terms of the relatively short-term – usually measured in months at most;
  • for most people, most of the themes of the shift at the Really Big Picture level are, to put it bluntly, scary-as-hell – which means that if we can even introduce these themes into our architecture at all, we’ll usually have to do so in a quiet way, through the back-door, often almost by stealth.

And, of course, there’s the beloved ‘ivory-tower’ accusation – when in fact facing these many of these concerns right now will turn out, over the longer term, to have been literally life-or-death choices. I’m not joking: everything I can see, from a futurist’s perspective, makes that point perfectly plain.

All of which makes this t-r-i-c-k-y, to say the least…  🙁

What I’ll do here, over this series of posts, is tackle these themes through what I sometimes call the business-anarchist taglines:

  • There’s gonna be a revolution – but one that’s both sudden and slow, all at the same time
  • There are no rules – so what we need is a roadmap for chaos
  • There are no rights – only responsibilities are real
  • From possession to responsibility – the practical meaning of property
  • Money doesn’t matter – but value and values do
  • Everything adapts, everything changes – the role of agility, stability and vision

(I’ll edit this list above to include the links when the respective posts are up on the site.)

Putting this into practice

If we only explore the Really Big Picture on its own, it wouldn’t be of much use: it would indeed be an ‘ivory-tower’ exercise. But in each of the posts I’ll include a section about what to look for right now in our existing architecture-work, how we can help our clients and organisations improve their effectiveness right now by incorporating at least some aspects of those themes from the Really Big Picture, and what we can do right now do to reduce the otherwise-unnoticed Enterprise Debt and short-, medium- and longer-term kurtosis-risk within the organisation’s architectures and business-practices. That’s real and often immediate ‘bottom-line’ stuff – whichever way the organisation happens to measure its ‘bottom’ line.

In other words, taking these perhaps abstract-seeming ideas, and making them real, in the everyday world, for everyone’s benefit. Which is probably a good idea, wouldn’t you think? 🙂

Anyway, more to come over the next few days: Watch This Space?

5 Comments on “RBP-EA: From ‘Really Big Picture’ into real-world practice

  1. I agree about spending time outside of IT. On the other side…degrees are important for measuring temperature…it doesn’t indicate vision and ability to do any part of EA.

  2. Hello Tom,

    Your points are always interesting as if your brain was continuously boiling of ideas. They spread around architecture community a sparkling enthusiasm.

    Enterprise architects keep a difficult position : their practices are about methods when business look forward solutions. It is a kind of original sin.

    In addition, strategists, who have had the hearing of CxO, care mainly about enterprise business context before a quick internal diagnostic. Indeed strategy may imply to buy another business units.

    Should Enterprise architecture be a method or an approach to implementing strategy ? Yes, it could be, except that strategy provides big bones of strategy implementation.

    So why not Enterprise architecture only being IT transformation ? Yes but, how is the Business ?

    I agree that Enterprise Architecure has a lot to do forward : having business really using its concept, having our own Michael Porter to put it forward, and keeping infrastructure approach (not all is business, there is technology).

    It is very exciting but very difficult as well… unless a Tom Graves keep on spreading around enthusiasm… 😉



  3. LOL – As someone approaching 46, I did not realise Tom was near 60 yet I only saw him again a few months ago. Full of energy and ideas – the ideal near / shy of 60 year old!

  4. Hi Tom 🙂 Interesting and can I throw in a point? You said “What I’m calling ‘the Really Big Picture’ is a set of fundamental shifts that will start to impact fairly soon at every conceivable scale. These shifts will be forced on us by the confluence of a number of distinct yet interrelated strands – in particular, increasing complexity, increasing global-scale interdependency, increasing resource-constraints, and several serious sustainability issues.”

    I have a problem with the words “will” and “will be forced on us.” First, will. History is full of situations where it seemed perfectly obvious that something “would” happen right up until the moment when something totally different happened. This is the problem I always have with futurist declarations – that word “will” – because nobody actually knows that! Would it not be better to say that these things COULD happen, and that it’s fruitful to think about how we might respond if they do? And then how we might respond if something totally different happens? I know it’s de rigeur in the futurist field to say that, but it always stops me short. I did not expect it of YOU who have shown such agility otherwise!

    I mean, I can easily imagine decreasing complexity (a new wave of fascists rise to power), decreasing global-scale interdependency (air travel dies out due to volcano ash), decreasing resource constraints (cold fusion works out or paintable solar cells are free), and no sustainability issues (half the population dies in an epidemic and there’s suddenly room for all of us again). I can also put those together into several dozen different puzzles of possibility and play with them. Big things do happen all the time, just different things. I was watching a thing about the ice ages and they said – get this – that the ice ages happened off and on about every 10,000 years from about 2 million years ago up until about … 10,000 years ago. When they stopped happening. An alien would say, those humans! What has happened before will never happen again, unless we like it; what is happening now will keep happening, only more so; and what will happen is only what obviously follows from what is happening now. How many times have those expectations been broken, not just in history but in our own lifetimes?

    And the “will be forced on us.” I think it was James P. Carse who said that nobody is ever without choice, even if the result of that choice is to die in some horrible way. One of the problems of modern life, from MY perspective, is that people have become blind to their own choices. We choose to buy things instead of growing them or building them ourselves; we choose to consume far more than we need; we choose to use computers and cars – but we have forgotten that we CHOSE all these things and COULD choose different things. The fact that it would be hard or painful to choose those things doesn’t mean it’s not a choice. So I don’t think shifts are ever “forced” on anybody, even if it feels that way. I can choose not to participate in the new global economy; I’ll just be poorer. Lots of people out here in the country do exactly that. It’s not a fun choice, but it’s still a choice.

    One last thing and then I’m done 🙂 One thing I’ve noticed in a lot of futurist writings is that “what will happen” means “what I want to happen.” Now I happen to agree with you. I would LOVE to see money become irrelevant, and I would LOVE to see people stop being possessed by possessions, and I would LOVE to see more agility, stability and vision, and responsibilities instead of rules. But there are lots of people who would LOVE just the opposite to happen, to whom those things are code words for the world going to hell in a handbasket. Most of them are pretty nice people. Making choices. I was just reading a thing about how conservatives fear mayhem and don’t mind sterile emptiness, and liberals fear sterile emptiness and don’t mind some mayhem. Your rich life may be somebody else’s hell. What happens when we all live together?

    Oops, one MORE thing 🙂 You mention “assumptions of current Business As Usual.” That bothers me because business is never usual, current or uniformly assumed. People do business in as many ways as there are people; and ways of doing business can change as you are watching them; and people make all sort of different assumptions about what is usual.

    So I guess I offer you a (hopefully kind and courteous) challenge: How does your really-big-picture EA look in the light of this?


  5. Pat, Jerome, Peter – many thanks! (To quote an old friend of mine, “Thank you for your support, I will wear it always?” 🙂 )

    Cynthia – likewise many thanks: yes, you’re entirely correct, of course, on all of those points, and I sit corrected… A leeeetle bit too much over-enthusiasm on my part, I fear? 🙁 – hence thanks again for the firm yet much-needed reminder.

    As for “How does your really-big-picture EA look in the light of this?”, I’ll answer that in more detail in the next blog-post – it needs to be out there in a more visible place, rather than tucked away down here in the depths of the comments.

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