At Unicom EA: breaking free from IT-centrism

A big shift in enterprise-architecture indicated at a relatively-small but increasingly-important conference: that was my impression of Unicom EA 2012 in London late last week.

At first glance, there might seem nothing much that’s particularly new or different in the conference-programme: an unusual emphasis on panels and questions from ‘the floor’, perhaps, but that’s about it. Yet the big difference is in what was not in the programme: there’s none of the obsessive IT-is-the-centre-of-everything assertion that we’ve seen almost everywhere else in ‘the trade’ for most of the past decade. We’re at last reaching towards a true ‘architecture of the enterprise’.

And that shift in perspective was echoed from all sides, all the way through the conference. To give just two examples, Robbie Forder’s wide-ranging “Why do architectures fail?” and Philip Hellyer’s delightful “Thinkers and Doers: A framework for EA value” both focussed strongly on the human aspects of EA rather than the technical ones. Hellyer included a quote from Gerry Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting, that “it’s always a people-problem”: that whatever it looks like, and no matter how technical it seems, in reality it’s always down to people to somehow (re)solve every problem – and our architectures need to be aware of that fact at all times.

There was only one presenter who briefly pushed the old IT-is-the-solution-to-everything line – and it looked a bit lame and myopic even to him by about halfway through his presentation. There was only one participant who insisted for a while that “ultimately EA is always and only about computers” – and in a coffee-break discussion he acknowledged that that assertion didn’t make sense even in his own strongly IT-oriented industry. That’s a very big shift from even a year ago – let alone the TOGAF conference some five years back where I was publicly dismissed as some kind of nutcase for asserting that ‘enterprise-architecture’ must be about more than just the enterprise-IT, that it literally means ‘the architecture of the enterprise’ as a whole.

In short, the conference indicates that we’re at last starting to arrive at a place where EA can actually do something useful at a true enterprise-wide scope. Hooray! 🙂

We’re not there yet, though. The next trap after IT-centrism is business-centrism, where we break out of IT but the ‘inside-out‘ mindset still prevails: merely a shift from one ‘the centre’ to another, rather than reaching the necessary understanding that in a viable architecture, everywhere and nowhere is the centre, all at the same time. For example, one participant expressed his exasperation that, right near the end of the conference, I was the first person there to mention the words ‘business-case’. The huge danger of that trap is that it seems even more credible and defensible than IT-centrism – after all, we’re supposed to be working for our organisation, and it’s the business that’s paying the bills. Yet the reason why it’s a trap is best expressed by Chris Potts’ dictum that “customers do not appear in our processes, we appear in their experiences”: our architectures must start from that broader enterprise-context, not solely from the perspective of the business alone – otherwise we risk creating a business-oriented architecture that might seem perfect in itself but has no real-world context, and therefore has no real-world use or value.

The other challenge we face is that most of the tools we need are still stranded back in the old IT-centric space. At the conference, Harman van der Berg gave a great demonstration of the BizzDesign toolset, and its power and versatility in describing structure and change in architectures. The catch is that its underlying metamodel is Archimate, which is still rigidly centred around the old IT-centric pseudo-layers of (IT-only) ‘Infrastructure’, ‘Application’ and ‘Business’ – where ‘business’ is ‘anything not-IT that might affect IT’. So whilst there’s no doubt that BizzDesign is a great toolset, and arguably one of the best available at present, it won’t allow us to  describe anything more than a small subset of the actual architecture of the enterprise – which can make it more of a hindrance than a help in real-world practice. The need for toolsets and metamodels that do support how we now need to work in EA is an ongoing challenge that toolset-vendors urgently need to address.

Overall, though, signs of real progress along the path towards a real enterprise-architecture. Feels good. 🙂

6 Comments on “At Unicom EA: breaking free from IT-centrism

  1. Hi Tom !

    Here in Brazil, where the ‘enterprise-architecture’ is nearly completely unknown, we have a big opportunity to start it properly! Cultural aspects and a series of crises in our country, let the people to one of the most versatily around the world, the famous ‘jeitinho Brasileiro’ / ‘Brazilian way’.

    Now that our country is more stable, do believe – exporting a lot of very good professionals to the world – is key moment to introduce frameworks like TOGAF.

    Those frameworks are very good on their purpose, but sometimes, in my particular opinion, forgot to link it to the economical viewpoint.

    It is so hard to sell ‘enterprise-architecture’ to people who think only in finance/economical aspects….

    I guess that TOGAF framework is very good and starting to be out-of-IT-centric, but it will be better if the ‘$$ money $$’ were strongly linked to the framework.

    Thanks for your valuable posts Tom !

    Carlo E. Spethmann Corrêa
    Blumenau (SC) – Brazil

    • Hi Carlo!

      Yes, agreed. The real challenge, perhaps, is more that we need to tailor our message for different stakeholders: the EA-story for the finance-folks is often very different from the EA-story for marketers, or for operations, or facilities-managers, for example. Even for IT-folks the EA-story needs to be distinctly different for developers, for project-managers, for systems-operation managers and service-managers.

      I’d agree with you about the limitation of the current version of TOGAF. It does have a strong understanding of the need to work with multiple viewpoints, but it’s as if they say that every one of those viewpoints must somehow centre around IT – which many (most?) real-world business-viewpoints don’t. I know that there’s a lot of work going on in the Open Group community to fix this, in the upcoming TOGAF Next: but unfortunately it isn’t there in what we have now – and it’s that’now’ that we have to work with at each moment, after all.

      As you say, there are huge opportunities for enterprise-architecture in Brazil right now: but we need to get it right, or the opportunity may well be lost for ever. So I do strongly recommend that you talk with (and coordinate with) key EA players such as Roberto Severo (AOGEA-Brazil), Isabela Abreu (Open Group Brazil) and Fernando Botafogo (AE-Rio) – between them, they have a very good understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in current Brazilian business.

      Thanks again, anyway – let’s keep in touch on this?

  2. Hi Tom, thanks for your kind words.

    I think it’s common for people escaping one local maxima to get caught up in another. Even as we seek to leave our old attitudes and approaches behind, we’re prone to applying them to our new situation without realising that they may be as inappropriate here as they were in the old world.

    As you say, everywhere and nowhere is the centre, and that’s a difficult concept for ego-centric creatures like ourselves. As with the process isn’t the process (and isn’t ours), this is something that I think a lot of us recognise intellectually but don’t yet understand viscerally. (It’s in the head, but not the gut!)


    • All very good points, Philip – strongly agree.

      (Any chance of a copy of your Unicom-EA presentation? 🙂 – do let us know if/when it’s available somewhere.)

  3. Tom, you need to commend yourself. You’ve been banging your head against the IT wall about holistic Enterprise Architecture that it is finally crumbling down!

    As far as the business side of Enterprise Architecture, this business architect understands the difference. Moving from the IT side of the house to business, I think it will be easier for the business architects to accept they are only a portion of the holistic enterprise.

    I’ve also noticed an acceptance that value is not only financial value (somemthing many business types hold dear). This may also help accept the holistic approach.

    I’m standing by my computer giving you a standing ovation, dear friend!

  4. Hey “nutcase” to assist my self expression and to lift understanding, I’ve been cliché’s and quotes for years. I am using the following quote as part of my e-mail signature.
    “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. Arthur Schopenhauer”

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