In the Age of Cloud, You Still Need an Enterprise Architecture

I’ve been speaking a lot lately about the importance of IT governance, especially as it relates to driving cloud (public, private, hybrid) adoption in the enterprise. Although IT governance is critical to the success of having a flexible and agile enterprise, having an overarching enterprise architecture to show how all the components of the enterprise are related and to guide the decisions that affect IT is just as important.

The essence of an enterprise architecture is that it lays out how information and IT enable the realization of the enterprise strategy, and it provides a framework for supporting and automating business processes using IT capabilities. Together with the IT strategic planning process, an enterprise architecture helps align IT initiatives more effectively with strategic business imperatives. It identifies both the current state of the enterprise and the future desired state, and it enables business and IT managers, including the governance team, to see how the enterprise can transform itself in stages from the current state to the envisioned future state.

I’ve seen some clients approach enterprise architecture as something that is done and then “set and forget”; big mistake. An enterprise architecture is not simply a static document. It is a dynamic, disciplined, ongoing process. Its central focus is on evolving the key operational processes of the enterprise (the enterprise business architecture) and the information systems that support them (the enterprise IT architecture).

By describing the essential, overall design of these architectures as a holistic “system of systems” and by providing the context, guidance, and discipline for the development of the more detailed, system- and service-specific architectures, an enterprise architecture provides a way to translate between business needs and IT capabilities. It shows how the business needs are to be met by the enterprise’s information systems and the information services they provide, thereby creating a bridge that ensures alignment of business and IT.

Taking a holistic architectural view of the enterprise helps strike an effective balance across all business and IT imperatives, with a particular emphasis on agility. It helps planners see how the enterprise currently works, and how it could and should work in the future.

  • The strategy provides the overall direction (vision, goals/objectives, and measures) for the enterprise and IT capability, while the architecture describes the operational and information systems as they are, and as they should be to realize the strategy.
  • The IT investment planning aspect of strategic planning (often referred to as “project portfolio management”) uses the architecture to identify initiatives with high strategic value and acceptable risk and adds them to a committed plan of record.
  • Your program management office then drives execution of the initiatives in the plan of record, with reviews against the architecture at appropriate points in the initiatives’ lifecycles.

As long as I can remember, enterprise architecture has been promoted as a key tool in bridging the gap between business and IT. But even within the last few years, the practice of enterprise architecture has failed to deliver on a lot of the hype, causing many to lose interest. Several factors have combined to once again bring enterprise architecture to the forefront:

  • The discipline of enterprise architecture has matured, learning from past mistakes of over-reaching, not paying enough attention to benefits vs. costs, and focusing too much on IT considerations.
  • The costs to operate and maintain information systems have continued to grow, providing a large payback for architecture-led efforts to rationalize processes and consolidate systems.
  • Architecture methods and tools have advanced significantly, including improvements in modeling of business strategies, processes, and metrics, and relating them to IT capabilities.
  • Many partial models and other architectural elements are widely available, greatly lowering costs and significantly improving the ability to provide automated, flexible, real-time linkages between enterprises.

To wrap this up, when properly envisioned and implemented, an enterprise architecture is a fundamental tool that anticipates future needs and enables you to implement change rapidly in response to changing business priorities. It enables your IT organization to respond rapidly to changes in business strategy, processes, and environment. It enables your business units to realize their critical business goals and strategies by providing a framework that supports all the processes, information, and IT systems that those goals and strategies require.