IT-oriented versus IT-centric

Earlier today I came across a Tweet from the Open Group that pointed to an interview with Dr Leon Keppleman at University of North Texas. Given that the note was from Open Group, no surprise that it was mostly about IT, but to me, the headline was somewhat of a breath of fresh air, and I said so when I reTweeted it:

  • tetradian: RT @theopengroup: On @infomgmt about “Getting Holistic with Enterprise Architecture” >strong recommend #entarch

To me the article is a very good illustration of the crucial distinction between IT-oriented versus IT-centric.

In essence, the whole interview is all about IT, and IT-education: nothing much more than that. And parts of it show the usual IT-type errors, such as ‘information-systems’ solely in terms of software and the like, without any apparent reference to the human side of information. And it doesn’t exactly off all that well, either:

We have a pretty strong and broad curriculum, the students get several different programming classes, good grounding in network technology and database technology and software.

Which is not exactly what those of us in whole-enterprise architecture would be likely to regard as a ‘broad curriculum’. At first glance, it can seem so much “Oh no, not again…” that I wasn’t much surprised when a colleague complained at me for reTweeting it in such glowing terms.

Yet there are several points that make it stand out from the crowd. Keppleman continues the above with these comments (with the interviewer’s question in italic):

But we also try to bring in the big picture, how it really fits together. Though most of our students take entry-level jobs working on a particular project or part of a system, whether it’s infrastructure or software or some combination, we want them to leave with some sense that the things they work on are actually part of a much larger enterprise. That piece they are working on needs to be not just a good piece, but a great piece that creates value for the whole.

That sounds like a sales pitch for enterprise architecture.

Yes, and in my career it came to me backwards, too. My original focus was software development and obviously the importance of getting the requirements right. Well, it turns out that to have the requirements right, you need what you are working on in the context of the whole because otherwise you might build a great system but it doesn’t create value. It might be adding redundancy or be the 73rd system to connect 72 other systems. Even if those other 72 systems are part of stovepiped business units and are perfectly aligned with them and serve their needs, as a whole the enterprise is wasting a ton of money and a ton of resources and talent. That experience is what brought me to the enterprise architecture space.

The way I read that is that whatever you’re doing in software or whatever, there’s no point in doing it if it doesn’t support the overall big-picture. Whatever we’re doing, it’s always part of the whole – so we have to be aware of the whole, at all times. Hence the need for enterprise-architecture – which, as can be seen from above, has to be a real ‘architecture of the enterprise’.

In many people’s view of ‘enterprise’-architecture, IT presents itself as the centre of the business-world, the one undisputed core around which everything else revolves. ‘The business’, if mentioned at all, is described solely in terms of ‘anything not-IT that might affect IT’. (If you don’t believe me, go ask anyone not from IT whether TOGAF’s so-called ‘Business Architecture’ makes any sense to them in business terms…) That’s IT-centrism, and it’s a really serious problem in current enterprise-architecture.

But the article above, and the overall mood of the piece, is not IT-centric.

Sure, it’s unashamedly IT-oriented – no doubt about that. Dr Keppleman’s unit is nominally part of a business-school, but as he says, “most of our students take entry-level jobs working on a particular project or part of a system… infrastructure or software or some combination”.  (There’s a mild mis-labelling there, perhaps – it’s not what many of us would think of as ‘business’ – but that’s about the worst that I can see of it.) It is what it is: it’s just IT – and it doesn’t really claim to be anything else.

And yet it does maintain a broader awareness beyond itself. It’s clear that IT is seen as an important role, yet also that it’s just one part amongst many within that greater whole:

“…help us change how we work together and communicate within organizations to be more integrated, more holistic”.

I’ll admit that I really don’t like IT-centrism: it’s been the bane of the EA industry for far too many years. But I’m definitely not ‘against IT’, as some people have portrayed me to be. In a true ‘architecture of the enterprise’, everything matters, in depth as well as in breadth: so I’m very happy to see a piece that’s as IT-oriented as this, and yet does also know how to play its part within them whole.

IT-oriented is not the same as IT-centric.

10 Comments on “IT-oriented versus IT-centric

  1. Centre shouldn’t mean whole. Just because something is centred on A doesn’t mean it can’t contain B and C as well. Sometimes a centre acts as a departure point (hub) from which you can reach many other places.

    There are many words that are practically indistinguisable in meaning, including: -based, -oriented, -led, -driven, -centric, -aided and -supported.

    * Component-based, but object and service-oriented
    * Architecture-led, but model-driven
    * Event-driven, but net-centric
    * Computer-based training (CBT), but computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW)

  2. @Richard Veryard – You’re right, perhaps I ought to add that it’s not ‘IT-centrism’ as such that’s the problem here, but ‘anything-centrism’. To me, the key point of a whole-context or ‘holograph’ view is that everywhere and nowhere is ‘the centre’, all at the same time. When one domain purports to be ‘The Centre the sole point around which everything else revolves, we lose that ability to see the whole.

    “Centre shouldn’t mean whole. Just because something is centred on A doesn’t mean it can’t contain B and C as well.”

    Agreed, it shouldn’t. In any form of ‘centrism’, it does: everything else is seen solely in terms of that ‘centre’. If B or C don’t in some way connect with A, they’re simply ignored as if they don’t exist. Hence, again, the sad shambles that is TOGAF’s ‘Phase B’.

    “There are many words…”

    Yep. And I’m well aware that many people are extremely cavalier in the way they use those terms. But it’s precisely that kind of carelessness that gets us into some very nasty messes, especially as we move down towards implementation. Hence even if other people want and, apparently, need to be casual about it, we can’t afford that kind of casual luxury: we must be much more precise in terminology in our own work, and with our own colleagues at least, if not necessarily with others in other disciplines.

  3. @Richard Veryard – Hi Richard

    Okay, fair enough – I’ve complained at others for imprecision in terminology, so my turn to take it, I guess? 🙂

    In what follows, I’ll use ‘yyy‘ to mean some selected domain-of-interest – it could be IT, or security, or health-and-safety, or anything else.

    What I mean by ‘yyy-oriented’ is something like “usually holds the focus on yyy, and in general won’t move much if at all outside of the yyy domain, but acknowledges that yyy is only one part of a greater whole, and that yyy does need to be assessed in terms of that greater whole”.

    What I meant by ‘yyy-centric’ is something like “views the yyy domain as the necessary centre and focus for all players in the greater whole, that everything in the greater whole exists only in relation to the yyy-domain, and that the greater whole can only be measured in the terms and values of the yyy-domain”.

    If ‘yyy-oriented’ and ‘yyy-centric’ cannot or should not be used for these meanings, what other terms should I use instead? Advice, please?

    Many thanks!

  4. @Tom

    I think the distinction you are trying to draw is between an exclusive or closed focus (which you have been calling yyy-centric) and a non-exclusive or open focus (which you have been calling yyy-oriented).

    I don’t see this as either/or, but a matter of degree. To what extent does yyy (in our case IT) dominate or frame a particular discourse, and to what extent are alternative narratives or frames foreclosed by the dominance of yyy?

    • @Richard

      “I think the distinction you are trying to draw is between an exclusive or closed focus (which you have been calling yyy-centric) and a non-exclusive or open focus (which you have been calling yyy-oriented)”

      Not quite. The difference is more between “just doing my job (but I know you exist)” [‘yyy-oriented’] versus “the world revolves around me and my interests” [‘yyy-centric’].

      “I don’t see this as either/or, but a matter of degree.”

      Again, not quite. In practice it can seem a matter of degree, but in essence the former is about specialism, and the latter about narcissism – very different traits in psychological terms.

      Might you be more comfortable with ‘yyy-focussed’ rather than ‘yyy-oriented’? (other than the annoying spelling-problem of UK ‘focussed’ versus US ‘focused’ 😐 )

  5. @Tom G
    Thanks Tom,

    Part of my answer at is:

    “Until recently infrastructures were rather simple, but we now see more and more complex infrastructures with huge impact issues like Amazon Cloud-failures, problems with business models of the mobile internet providers in the Netherlands, multiple daily papers in the Netherlands not printed & delivered because of a problem with a Unix system, multi-day problems with internet banking at a huge bank in the Netherlands with a big impact on consumers and webshops, the rogue certificate problem at Diginotar, the illegal spreading of copyrighted material, censorship by Twitter, Facebook privacy policies etc. etc.

    Because most infrastructures are now shared by large and often huge numbers of consumers & businesses I think that Infrastructure Architecture is (has become) more important than Enterprise Architecture.”

    But I also am questioning your line of reasoning a little bit, so I hope you will react to my full answer…

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