What is the enterprise in ‘the enterprise’?

When we talk about enterprise-architecture, what is ‘the enterprise’? For that matter, what is ‘enterprise’? Seems they’d be fairly foundational questions, yet most of the answers we see seem, well, kinda thin

If we hunt around on the net, we’ll find plenty of definitions for ‘enterprise’: “a business venture”, “a project or undertaking, typically one that is difficult or requires effort”, “initiative and resourcefulness”, “a business organisation”. That last definition is a popular one with business-folk – the organisation as ‘the enterprise’ – which leads to the quite common view that enterprise-architecture would, at most, limit its scope of interest to the boundaries of the organisation itself.

But to me this misses the whole point of enterprise, the one that comes up in so many of those other definitions: that it’s about emotion. About commitment, to some kind of action or cause. As Chris Potts would say, it’s about “the animal spirits of the entrepreneur”. Almost the antithesis, in fact, of the obsessive need for ‘control’ that pervades so many organisations…

And when we look at enterprise-architecture from that lens of ‘animal spirits of the entrepreneur’, suddenly it’s clear that there isn’t just one ‘the enterprise’ at play in our organisation or whatever: there’s dozens of them. Hundreds. Thousands. An infinity of enterprises, perhaps. Enterprises everywhere. (Sometimes showing themselves mostly by a lack of enterprise within the organisation, but that’s perhaps another story… 😐 ) And all of those different enterprises competing like crazy for every small scrap of available attention… No wonder it’s hard to keep focus!

Those ‘animal spirits’ are each person’s hopes, fears, aims, intentions. Whatever they’re each committed to in the moment, that’s their enterprise. So every customer brings their own unique enterprise to the organisation each time they connect – and it may well be a different enterprise on every occasion. Every employee brings their own enterprise – or enterprises, rather, because they bring with them the current enterprise of themselves, their family, each member of the family, the community, every concern at every timescale. Everything that holds their interest in every fleeting moment – whatever it may be, it’s all enterprise.

If it’s an interest, it’s also an enterprise. Hence pervading through every organisation are vast numbers of collective enterprises: some are somewhat imposed from outside, by the communities and governments and pressure-groups that apply in the organisation’s context; some come from a more sideways direction, as professional communities-of-interest and communities-of-practice, each with their own worldview and language and mythos and everything else. All of them colliding and clashing and competing with each other, all within this one organisation that we might now almost laughably describe as ‘the enterprise’.

And from somewhere within that chaotic cacophony, the enterprise-architects must somehow find something that will help people make sense of this ‘the enterprise’. (If not the enterprise-architects, then someone still has do this task.) Because if that still-point isn’t found – the calm within the centre of the storm – then all we’ll have is the storm. Which ain’t pretty…

We’ve all seen what happens when that kind of storm wreaks its havoc across an entire organisation. If there’s no focus, then soon the only thing that will matter is what matters for me, right here, right now: not interested in anyone else, anything else. The clashes and confusions go out of control, pulling every which way at once, yet often also covert, concealed, the impossible un-joys of knife-in-the-back office-politics and worse. The organisation first splits into silos, then fragments further and further into factions and tribes. And by that point there is no organisation left that’s worthy of the name. Or enterprise, for that matter. In short, a mess. A big mess. A mess that’s no fun for anyone.

Which is why the idea of ‘the enterprise’ is important. As one of my clients put it, what they needed most was “a totem-pole to unify the tribes” – a shared focus around which everything could coalesce, as ‘the enterprise’.

Here, of course, we hit the obvious problem: whose enterprise? Who defines ‘the enterprise’? For that matter, who owns it?

Corporate law has very definite views on that last point: the interests of ‘the owners’ are paramount above everything else. (Except taxes, perhaps.) But it’s not simple as that, because it actually doesn’t work. Sure, we could legitimately say that ‘the owners’ possess the organisation – or the assets of the organisation, rather. But the organisation operates within a much larger business context, which is also an ‘enterprise’ – whereas the most that ‘the owners’ can possess extends only up to the boundaries of the organisation. In that sense, the scope of ‘the enterprise’ that matters most to the organisation is always larger than the organisation itself. And no matter how much they might wish to do so, ‘the owners’ can never really possess ‘the animal spirits’ of the employees, the customers, the suppliers and everyone else – which is an important point in itself.

Hence we come back to the notion that ‘the enterprise’ is a shared point of focus for everyone who might do some kind of business with the organisation. An enterprise is a commitment: so this ‘the enterprise’ – whatever it might be – is a kind of declaration of commitment, the chosen answer to the question “what does this organisation stand for?”. It gives the core reason for anyone or everyone to connect with this organisation – yet also identifies or implies the criteria, the values and principles, against which the organisation expects to be judged by all.

So as enterprise-architects, how do we choose this ‘the enterprise’? The usual way is through some sort of ‘vision-descriptor‘ that summarises the context, what’s being done within that context, and why it should be important to (almost) everyone to be engaged in that vision. But it’s crucial to understand that it’s not about the organisation – but about the organisation in relation to its broader context. It’s a statement of commitment to that enterprise: about how the organisation will behave in relation to that enterprise; about why it will behave that way; about how it will add value to that broader enterprise. This is why we might say that as enterprise-architects we create an architecture for an organisation, but about a much broader extended-enterprise.

But do we define the enterprise, as such? Not really: again, it’s a bit more subtle than that. The enterprise is: it’s not something that someone could define, or, even less, control. And yet even by the act of naming it, we sort-of bring it into existence, if only as a focus for shared attention, shared commitment, shared enterprise. We choose the phrasing that defines it – and that is a real choice that is well the organisation’s own purview. And yet it’s just a choice of words: it’s not the enterprise itself. We can choose to be responsible about that enterprise, and to that enterprise – yet no-one ever possesses it. In fact the moment anyone tries to possess the enterprise, tries to make their own private possession, that’s when it will ‘softly and suddenly vanish away‘ – into nothingness, as if it never existed. That’s the paradox of enterprise – and a real trap for any overly-controlling organisation.

This chosen ‘the enterprise is very real, and – when it works well – identifiably interwoven with yet also identifiably distinct from and greater than the organisation itself. And yet perhaps the strangest part of all is that it’s only ‘the enterprise’ because the organisation says it is 🙂 – as its chosen “totem-pole to unify the tribes”.

An interesting twist, yes?

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