What is enterprise architecture?
Enterprise Architecture (EA) is a high level, strategic technique designed to help senior managers achieve business and organisational change (TechWatch 2009). So far so good. Enterprise architecture is really the key to this whole suite of resources around organisational effectiveness and agility. However, when it comes to defining exactly what it is, what it does and what it looks like, things get rather more complicated.
Let’s try another definition:
"Enterprise architecture describes how organisations’ information systems, processes, organisational units and people work as a whole."
The name itself is probably part of the problem. As the definitions suggest, it is a strategic technique, it is about people and processes as much as technology and it is a holistic approach. However, the word ‘enterprise’ has corporate connotations that don’t really resonate with the education sector and the word ‘architecture’ makes it sound very technical. These are probably significant reasons why, despite the fact that EA is a tried and tested technique that has been in use for around 20 years, EA is little used, or even heard of, in the education sector.
EA did have its origins in the information systems world although its application is far wider. Its roots are in work by IBM’s John Zachmann in the 1970s. He worked with the aeronautical industry and saw similarities between what he was trying to do in making sense of complex information systems and bringing together the parts that make up a plane.
The difference was that the aeroplane manufacturers had an architecture that allowed them to bring together plans, models and specifications on many different levels and turn them into a plane that actually flew. It’s not difficult to take this analogy further and say that the industry as a whole also involves the processes that actually fly people to places with differing levels of in-flight service and different forms of marketing and administration.
Looked at in this way, it is not difficult to see the parallels with defining and delivering a curriculum, recruiting, teaching and assessing students etc.
"There appears to be a gross misunderstanding about architecture, particularly in the information technology community. Many people seem to think that an implementation, an end result, is architecture. To use an architecture and construction example, many people think that the Roman Coliseum is architecture. The Roman Coliseum is not architecture. The Roman Coliseum is the result of architecture. The result of architecture is an instance of architecture, an implementation."
Zachmann also looked at traditional building architecture. Again there is a many stage process of creating different representations of the end product from rough sketches to architectural blueprints. Different representations are needed to communicate with interior designers, builders, electricians, those responsible for fire safety etc, etc.
Zachmann realised that the representations weren’t just different in their level of detail: they differed in ‘essence’. He used this idea to create similar ways of working that could be applied to information systems. This in turn led to the development of EA.
EA is thus much wider than technical infrastructure: it is a strategic management technique that links organisational mission and goals, processes, information and technology. It provides a way of representing and understanding functions that differ in essence and making sense of the interrelationships between them. In short EA is a way of describing:
- What your organisation does
- The processes by which it does these things
- Who carries out the activities
- What data is used, how it flows through the organisation and where it is stored
- What information technologies are employed and how they are used
- The relationships and dependencies between all of the above
EA helps you understand the current state and develop a blueprint for moving to a future desired state. Business Process Review is only about process, service oriented approaches (SOA) are only about systems. EA brings them all together. In this way EA is a significant enabler of change. One way of looking at EA is to see the different layers as different states of matter:
The data layer has to be solid. It needs strong governance and policies and defined standards.
The middleware layer, which represents the business logic, can be more liquid and new approaches mean you may be able to change from commercial to open source products relatively easily.
The user facing layer is the gas: it can take any form and may change often as new portals are developed and mobile devices introduced, etc.
Because EA has grown out of the Information Systems world it can often be difficult to show senior managers in other areas how it is relevant to them. This is a significant obstacle but one that has been overcome before. In many colleges and universities it was the IT function that introduced the concept of formal project management techniques to the institution at large. Just because project management is useful in IT doesn’t mean it is only relevant to IT. The shared vocabulary of project management has escaped the IT department – EA now needs to do the same.One advantage of EA is that by helping you understand things in a holistic way it reveals the space where you can innovate.
"EA is a tool not a destination."
Liverpool John Moores University in Techwatch 2009A
"Although Enterprise Architecture is a noun it should really be a verb. It is what an organisation does every day."
"Enterprise Architecture (EA) is a high level, strategic technique designed to help senior managers achieve business and organisational change."
"EA is not an audit exercise, it is a decision support process."
"Enterprise Architecture describes how organisations’ information systems, processes, organisational units and people work as a whole."
"Enterprise Architecture can function as an umbrella, which describes and explains the relationships between projects and helps in both system acquisitions and change management. Architecture models, principles and standards form the content of an Enterprise Architecture."