Enterprise-architectures for the real world

“Excuse me”, asks the quiet voice from the seat in front of me, “are you getting off at Colchester? Will you tell me when we get there?”

I’m on the late-evening airport bus, on my way back home from the Intersection15 design/enterprise-architecture conference in Berlin. I’m tired – exhausted, more like – but Colchester is where I’m going, and I’m happy to talk with her if it’ll help. She’s Greek, this young woman – a trained nurse, coming for a new job at one of the larger hospitals in the town. A country lass from down in the Peleponnese peninsula, her English seems excellent, but it’s her first time in this country: she’s exhilarated, excited, but a bit nervous too. And I know all too well how it feels to be just dropped off somewhere in the back-end of an unknown town in an unknown culture and a language I don’t know well, so I promise to help her find the taxi that she’ll need to get to her hospital-lodgings and her new home.

After the usual tedious not-quite-hour, the bus trundles slowly into the town’s new so-called ‘bus-station’. It’s merely a handful of marked bays where people can get on and off the buses, and that’s about it – at this time of night, not even somewhere to sit and shelter from the all-too-inevitable wind and rain. Not exactly the best face to show a new visitor. But yes, it gets worse…

I’d remembered that was a taxi-rank here, of sorts – but turns out that ‘of sorts’ is the right term. There’s an office across the road, a couple of taxis outside of it. We head over there, dragging her two large cases. I go to the first car, start to ask the driver to take her to the hospital, but he cuts me off: “Are you Wivenhoe?” he says. “Uh, sorry?” is all I can stammer. “Is you the one what booked a cab ta Wivenhoe? If not, ya gotta book in there.” And he points to the open door of the office.

It’s not an office, as such: just a narrow hallway, with a mid-size television-monitor set behind a glass panel in the centre of the wall. The picture on the monitor might be the inside of an office, but it’s distorted, as if from a fish-eye lens, and I can’t see what’s going on, and I’ve no idea what to do. Fortunately, there’s another guy already standing there, waiting: “you gotta call ’em first” he says, pointing to a button beside a small loudspeaker mounted in a shallow steel panel just to the right of the screen.

I press the button. It doesn’t seem to connect to anyone: just a stream of dial-tones, then an automated “Please wait while your call is connected” – kinda confusing, given that I’m supposedly already in the taxi-office. Eventually a woman’s disembodied voice asks me in a disinterested way where I want to go. O-kay… I think I can make sense of how this works…

I’ve just started a stammered explanation that the taxi isn’t for me, it’s for the young Greek woman, when a big, burly man crashes through the door behind me. “Where’s my focken taxi?”, he yells, angrily, apparently at the screen, or the woman’s voice on the speakerphone, or something. He’s not just drunk, he’s so drunk that he’s actually drooling.

Literally. Drooling. Spittle sliding downward from the side of his mouth. Yuk…

“Where’s my focken taxi?” he yells again, all but lost in self-centred rage. “Where the fock are ya? How’m I focken gonna get focken home?” Yep: the drunks’ unflinching certainty that it’s always someone else’s responsibility – someone else’s ‘should‘ – to tidy up the mess he’s made of his evening and his life. And to emphasise his perceived ‘right‘ to instant service, he smashes his fist full-tilt at the glass screen. Which, evidently, isn’t glass, but shock-resistant polycarbonate, and needs to be. I’m getting more than a bit worried that the next fist will be coming straight towards me…

At this point, fortunately, his not-quite-so-drunk friend comes in, gently steers him outside. Regaining what little remains of my wits, I stammer at the speakerphone, “Uh, that wasn’t me…”. “I know that”, says the dispatcher’s dry voice, “I can see you on the camera”. And I finally realise how this system works: the speakerphone connects to the dispatcher, who’s sort-of visible on the monitor behind that panel, and who in turn can see whatever’s going on here through her own monitor. A closed-loop for real-time information-flow, but full physical separation. Which, given what’s just happened here, is all too understandable.

After a few more stumbles and mis-starts on my side, the message gets through: “Taxi’ll be outside in a couple minutes”, says the voice, and the line cuts off, with no further explanation. I go back out again. The drunk is still there, over to the left, with his friend still calming down; the Greek woman is over to the right, fortunately, but visibly somewhat shaken. “I’m sorry you had to see that”, I say; “this is probably the roughest part of town, but don’t worry, it is a nice town”. And then realise that, on a late-night shift on the emergency-ward, she will certainly have seen a lot worse than one out-of-control drunk – but not a happy first experience of the town, nonetheless. Quietening down again, we exchange a couple more questions and answers – for example, about where she can get a SIM-card for her phone – and then her taxi arrives, and she’s gone.

As I walk down the road to my own bus-stop, for the last leg of the long journey home, I hope that she does get to her new home-from-home okay, and that she settles down there well. I have no way to find out, of course; perhaps more to the point, probably the only way we’d meet again would be in her professional capacity as a hospital-nurse, which is not really the kind of meet-up I’d welcome!

Job done, anyway: helped her on her way as best I could, in the same sense as, over the years, how so many others have helped me. People passing in the night – almost literally so, in this case. But that’s real-life in the real-world, isn’t it?

Implications for enterprise-architecture

Yes, all of that above is just an everyday story – all too everyday for too many people, in many ways. For most of us, our enterprise-architectures don’t go anywhere near that kind of world. The practical point, though, is that perhaps they should…

Remember Stafford Beer’s warning about POSIWID – that ‘the purpose of the system is [expressed in] what it does’. If, in designing a system, we fail to understand and work with what’s actually going on, we’ll end up with whatever system happens to emerge from the real real-world context – which, as in that example above, is often pretty much an unmanaged mess. For some (most?) people in our discipline, their ‘enterprise’-architectures may never stray much beyond the nice safe bounds of a data-centre or suchlike – which is fair enough for them, I guess. But for those of us whose enterprises necessarily extend beyond such comfortable constraints, we need architectures that can work with such enterprises as they really are – which can be, uh, quite a bit different than everyday IT-architectures… It can be useful, then, to look at this example as enterprise-architecture – a literal ‘architecture of the enterprise’.

First, look at the enterprises (plural!) that intersect in this context:

  • the enterprise of the town – both as a destination, and as somewhere to live and work
  • the enterprise of hospitals, and the need for skilled labour
  • the enterprise of Europe, and its promotion and promise of free movement of people and of their labour
  • the enterprise of travel – both long-distance and local

Probably others too, but those are enough to note for here.

What’s brought this young woman to the town is the intersection of the enterprise of hospitals, and the enterprise of Europe: she’s a skilled worker, taking up a new job in another country.

The job is in a new town, which means that she will necessarily intersect with the town as enterprise.

To take up the new job, she intersects with the enterprise of travel, in various ways: from her home-town to the airport in Greece, thence to the airport here, then the airport bus to the town. So far so good (or as good as can be expected in present-day air-travel, anyway…). But at this point – the last stage of her literal ‘customer journey‘ through the overall enterprise(s) – everything kinda falls apart…

It seems that buses have always been a low-priority part of the overall public-transport system. Air-travel used to be glamorous – but not any more, not since the onset of ‘security-theatre’ at airports, whose only real function seems to be to provide delays to incite people to spend more at the ghastly airport-shops. In Britain at least, ‘glamorous’ is hardly a word we’d use to describe most train-services either – though Eurostar and suchlike still give some hope that long-distance travel might someday become more bearable again. But buses? – well, one amazingly-misnamed ‘Express Bus’ to the nearest airport here wends its way through so many tiny villages and stops at so many places that it achieves an average speed of (gosh!) less than 15mph – barely even bicycle-speeds over that distance. And when bus-passengers do finally get somewhere, the bus-station – as in this example here – so often seems to abandon its misfortune-laden clientele in what could only be described as the arse-end of the respective town: not exactly a great first-impression for incoming visitors, let’s say?

And taxis? – well they’re an essential part of the public-transport network too. But when a dispatcher needs to hide away at a safe distance, shielded from contact via camera and callphone, it’s pretty obvious that something’s seriously wrong with the overall system. Yes, those safety-concerns are real: but why does everything have to collapse into a heap in this way? Why do we keep dotting the joins, fragmenting the overall system into a mess of barely-functioning fiefdoms? Why is it so hard for architects and designers to understand that the overall journey doesn’t work properly until every step works together end-to-end, as a unified whole?

So here’s the challenge: How would you make this work, as an enterprise-architect? (A hint: you’ll almost certainly have to look at a lot of it from an RBPEA-type view – Really-Big-Picture Enterprise-Architecture.)

How would you set out the join all of the dots for this kind of customer-journey, every step of the way?

What are the information-flows, the people-flows, the material-flows, all of the connections between things, information, people and overall purpose, across all of these intersecting enterprises?

Most so-called ‘enterprise’-architectures are entirely ‘inside-out’, organisation-centric at best, too often barely more than IT-centric even now. But this one ain’t gonna work unless we can think in terms of the literal ‘architecture of the enterprise’, a perfectly-poised balance between ‘inside-out’ and ‘outside-in’. Most mainstream ‘enterprise’-architecture frameworks will still barely touch this world at all: so what would you need to do to make an enterprise-architecture framework that actually could address all of the needs in this space – an enterprise-architecture for the real world?

Over to you for comments and suggestions, perhaps?

4 Comments on “Enterprise-architectures for the real world

  1. Hi Tom,

    Very interesting topic and example of EA in our life.

    This made me re-think about the new bus shelter currently being deployed in Paris: they offer several services far beyong the classical bus shelter. For example, a USB charging port is now present by default on all shelters. This could be seen as a gadget as the time passed waiting for a bus is not enough to fully charge a phone, but who never got lost in a city at nigh with a phone unusable (and btw who remember the time where phones were charged only once a week…) ?

    Another potential (wanted?) side effect of those USB charging ports is for homeless who often own a phone only to be able to ask for some help in some critical moments. They now have a mean to keep their phone charged and thus this could (slightly) improve their security.

    There are also several “enhancements” on those new shelters. For those interrested: http://www.paris.fr/english/english/mayor-hidalgo-inaugurates-the-city-s-first-intelligent-bus-shelter/rub_8118_actu_154580_port_19237

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