Digital Enterprise Architecture: Revolution or Evolution?

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Like many people in IT who have been around for a while, even architects, (Enterprise and Solution) become a little immune to the next buzz word or hype cycle that comes along. That is where some marketeer comes up with a whizz-bang name for what seems to be like a new brilliant idea but in fact is, at best, a slight evolutionary step on from the last brilliant idea, or at worst, just a re-badge of something we did years ago.

Some examples are Object Oriented programming, which really was an evolutionary step in programming languages. An important one no doubt, but it did not revolutionise programming overnight, as evident by the number of procedurally written systems still running even today. Another classic is Agile software development, which was a progression from (among other things) Rapid Application Development. This, of course has led to Agile Project Management, which incorporates a number of similar prototyping methods as a well as organisational innovations such as Taiichi Ohno’s KanBan. But in general these are evolutionary innovations, often created by the merging of ideas and concepts.

In the technology arena this is much the same. Each year (it seems) a new brilliant idea is born from another and people leverage the past lessons learned or technology capabilities. This is life and this is good.

Enterprise Architecture as a field, embraces this evolutionary style wholeheartedly and most architecture work involves planning to introduce the latest technologies while maintaining a deep understanding of legacy technologies. Most times we create roadmaps that allow the businesses to maximize their investment and plan to shutdown I.T. system only when they are well beyond their use-by-date. Maximising the value from technology is part of the value proposition.

So when someone comes along and says: “Here is a new thing, it’s called Customer Orientated Design and to do it you need to use Agile delivery techniques and most importantly, you need to start up a Digital Transformation project.” It’s not surprising that many of us will just groan.

Here we go again, we think, some new jargon and some new hype. We just know what’s going to happen. Everyone under a certain age will get all excited about the possible speed of change and relief from frustration, budgets will get cut lower and executive expectations raised higher and then finally one day the CIO, or more likely some poor architect, will be left trying to explain that all those fancy new mobile and web systems that were bought, (or more likely signed up with some cloud provider on a two year contract), now need to be integrated with the 15-year-old Finance or ERP system. Or that the transformational project has now effectively doubled the number of customer databases that need to be managed, synchronised or consolidated. No-one likes to see those costs mount up.

So what is the answer? How does one stop the inevitable result of disappointment as yet another embittered CIO shrugs his shoulders and hands in his resignation letter?

One answer of course is to treat this as an evolution. Understand that the digital age and the demands of customers who have embraced the digital concept wholeheartedly is, in reality, an evolution for the business as a whole. Realise that by getting the right architects in early in the process (and that means the very beginning of planning and customer journeying) you can avoid, or at least reduce the costs and impacts of some new technology and significantly stream-lined processes. Furthermore you could at least measure or plan for the timely removal of legacy systems, or ensure adequate integration to keep it all going. Reduction of duplication, data or technology, can create significant savings in maintenance and management.

On the other hand care must be taken not to spin-wheels and waste time and money in paralytic analysis or laborious reviews of solution options and vendor comparisons – even though some people think it fun.

The revolution must happen and allow the evolution to catch up. The concept of MVP (minimum viable product) means you have to take some risks. Wise risks of course, ones that make the most of the flexibility of the cloud providers and accept the fallibility of the decision makers. In other words, try soon, fail fast and learn quickly.

This is where architecture done early is vital. Without a blueprint, or some idea of what the target state should look like, how do you know whether the work you are doing is going to end up in the right place? A core value behind the Agile approach is that the team delivers lots of stuff early that the customer loves, but s/he is not going to love you if you deploy something that that then breaks something else, or ends up in a data island.

Many companies have architecture and design principles like “reduce technological diversity” or “re-use before buy before build”, that seem to be at odds with Digital and Agile methodologies and principles. Furthermore, many teams just try and avoid the security implications of implementing a digital solution and they assume that some IT guy is going to put in a magical firewall that will somehow stop hackers. That’s not the way secure systems are implemented.

Once again, rather than being a ‘nay-sayer’, with the right level of Enterprise Architecture, (or shall we just call it ‘informed long-term planning’) carried out early in the piece and these elements can be addressed and faced head on. The team can be pointed into the right area and instead of awkward questions becoming blockers ,they can in fact open up innovative directions and options

So the answer to the evolution or revolution question is clearly that you need a lot of both. To allow fast and effective change you need to have a plan and you need to think ahead and that includes not only where the fast moving team will be going, but also how the legacy systems and business capabilities that aren’t impacted immediately can catch up with the digital age and evolve into it in their own time.

So all that is left to say comrades, is : “Power to the (evolving and digital) revolution!

~ Jeremy Sadler ~

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