Practical Enterprise Architecture, pt. 1

For a part of my career I’ve been an Enterprise Architect. Many times when I mention that job title to people, they have no idea what it’s really about. Therefore, I’m going to start a multipart series on this blog to talk about what Enterprise Architecture is, and present a simplified, and practical, methodology that I adhere to from my years in the industry. Even though I’m currently a direct manager, I still try to infuse Enterprise Architectural practices into my work, and as I’ll talk about towards the end of this series, Enterprise Architecture can actually be used as a model for talking about life planning and management as well.

To begin, the discipline of Enterprise Architecture is simply defined as a series of processes, practices, and guidelines that help guide decision making, and manage a portfolio of things. This can work in all businesses, not just technology ones, and helps give guidance and structure to leadership decisions to make improvements and continue growth. There are many methodologies out there including TOGAF, FEAF, and Zachmann.

However, what I’m going to present in this series is my personal simplified and practical version of EA. This methodology is based upon frameworks like TOGAF and FEAF, but I don’t adhere to all of the strictest processes that are defined by those standards. I find that this simplified method helps to introduce the topic and framework, which can then be built upon in the way that best suits the organization or person trying to do the implementation.

The graphic attached to this blog highlights a visual representation of what we’ll be talking about, and so for today’s entry I want to focus on the foundation that makes up the house of EA. Every house needs to have a solid foundation, and the house of EA is based on three basic concepts; Vision, Strategy and Knowledge. These three ideals are the basis upon which all of the pillars stand. They might sound like simple concepts, but let’s unpack them a bit so we’re all on the same page.

enterprise-architecture-drawingWhen we talk about Vision, what we’re referring to is the goal of where an organization wants to go. Vision is that driver that informs all other decisions. If you want to move your business forward you need to know and understand what the destination is that you’re shooting for. If you stumble blindly forward, you’ll end up making decisions that might seem right at the time, but have long term impacts that can actually set you back. Vision is linked to what Simon Sinek describes as “Starting with Why” (I encourage everyone to watch his video). Vision is directly linked with why you’re doing what you do. Vision isn’t concerned with how you get there, or what you do every day, but with the picture of the future that you’re trying to bring to fruition.

Without vision an organization will stumble forward and every plan will only meet limited success. There might be initiatives and projects that are rousing successes, but if they’re not tied to a vision of where the organization is heading they’re fleeting moments. They accomplish short term goals, but they don’t bring the organization to where it really wants to be. That is why Enterprise Architecture starts with Vision. If you don’t have a vision for your organization, then everything else will never fall into place.

A vision doesn’t need to be overwhelming though, it just needs to be attainable, and something you believe in. Let’s take an example of a neighborhood cafe to see what this might look like. You decide to start a cafe in your neighborhood because you want to create a place that everyone in the neighborhood goes to hang out and join in community with one another. Your vision is for a (profitable) place of community that helps bring a neighborhood together. You know when you’re successful if you’re making a living, and you’re seeing your neighbors in the cafe frequently, talking with other neighbors and building up the community. You’d see your vision achieved in a real and practical way directly by the people around you.

If you’ve got your vision, then what comes next? Vision isn’t enough to create something out of nothing, and that’s where the second element of the house of EA foundation comes in to play. Strategy is concerned with how you get to where you want to go to make a vision a reality. In Strategy all of those projects and ideas take shape and work begins to happen. This is where all the crazy ideas and plans that might be tossed about, get culled down into real, actionable, strategic goals.

Having a strategy means that you know what you’re going to do tomorrow, and the next day, to achieve the vision. You create efforts that have a real impact and put them into place to test them, and ensure they continue to move you on the right path forward. Good strategies are practical to achieve, meaningful to the vision, and just as easy to communicate to those around you as the vision is. One of the key features of Enterprise Architecture is the communication of all of these aspects to everyone involved, to ensure that all players are on board, and understand they why and how of day to day work.

Let’s put some strategy into our neighborhood cafe and see what it looks like. If the vision is a place of neighborhood community, then strategy should work to achieve that end. Finding ways to make the cafe a central point of life in the community would be one very practical avenue of strategies. Hosting political events, community fundraisers, or making space available to churches, mosques and civic groups are all viable strategies that would push towards the vision. People come together at the cafe, and when they’re there they see their neighbors, and community happens.

In a profitable venture it’s also important to make sure that the bottom line balances out, even if it’s over the long term. Therefore, strategies should always take into account the financial needs of the organization, whether that be a non-profit, governmental, or corporate. Each type of organization type will have very different needs and obligations, so it’s imperative to understand the nature of the organization when putting a strategy in place.

That leads directly into the third element of the house of EA foundation, that of knowledge. When I use the term knowledge in Enterprise Architecture, I’m not just talking about having smart people. Knowledge is that understanding of all of the assets, skills, talents, abilities, and resources that are available to an organization. As important as it is to have a vision and a strategy to get there, if you don’t know how to implement the strategy, or understand what your organization is capable of, you won’t get far. Knowledge is the key to making everything else a reality.

Knowledge isn’t just a cataloging of things, but Enterprise Architecture demands that you know what those things do and are capable of. If we move back to our cafe example, some of the pieces of knowledge would be the size of the space that you have to work with, the capabilities of the chefs to cook, the location of the cafe, and the tastes of the local community. Knowing all of these pieces of information allow you to make informed decisions about how to implement strategy to reach the vision.

If your cafe has a large outdoor patio space, then perhaps one strategy would be to make it dog friendly, and encourage people to bring their four-legged friends to the outdoor space (city code permitting) to hang out and meet with their neighbors. The investment of fire pits and other heat sources can make a patio more hospitable in cooler seasons of the year, and continue to give people a place to gather longer. Knowing the tastes of the community would also be key to helping bring people in and spend time together.

All of these pieces of knowledge help contribute to the overall goal of Enterprise Architecture. This is why these three elements are at the foundation of the house of EA. Vision, Strategy, and Knowledge create the key pieces upon which we can build up the rest of the house. Once we have these three elements in place we can start to dig deeper into how the rest of an Enterprise Architecture practice can come together. It’s important to remember that an EA practice is not the owner of the organization, but is the methodology by which the organization moves forward. Enterprise Architecture’s goal is to enable organizations to meet their goals and succeed in their vision.

One of the main criticisms of EA is that it is often seen as very ivory towered, and not practical. That is why I start this house of EA with the three bedrock foundations of Vision, Strategy, and Knowledge. Enterprise Architecture only exists to enable an organization to be the best that it can be, and at no point should EA practices exist for the sole benefit of EA. As we unpack the four mail pillars of EA in later blogs, it will be important to keep this foundation in mind at all times. Nothing that Enterprise Architecture does should negatively impact the vision or strategy of the organization, but it should aways be seeking to serve as a servant leader to the organization. The needs of the organization trump the purity of EA, and EA should always be looking for how to give the best of itself for the betterment of others.

Enterprise Architecture is an exciting young discipline, so I hope you’ll stick with me over the next few weeks as I continue to pull back the curtain and show how EA can be a key component in any organization.


Beer, running, and geeky things.

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