Why we need enterprise architects now more than ever

In the era of decentralized IT, enterprise architects will find fresh opportunity to help businesses meet their most important objectives

Why we need enterprise architects now more than ever
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Architects are visionary by nature. They imagine a new structure -- whether a building or an integrated set of automated business processes -- and proceed to go about the hard work of determining how to make that structure real.

Every year, to honor the visionary role EA plays in modern organizations, InfoWorld collaborates with Forrester Research and the Penn State University Center for Enterprise Architecture to bring you the Enterprise Architecture Awards. This year we have another outstanding batch of winners, including British Gas, Capital One, Idaho National Lab, National Grid, and Tata Communications.

As Forrester vice president and research director Alex Cullen writes in his article unpacking the winning initiatives, the trick for enterprise architects is to engage with the business deeply enough to ensure visionary projects are developed and deployed collaboratively from start to finish. A decade ago, EA talked about “business-IT alignment.” Today, there’s no excuse for disengagement between the two to begin with.

From the start, an enterprise architect’s vision should be a business vision, one that drives technology decision-making and ultimately informs the new systems and processes deployed on the ground. Across most industries, enabled by the Internet, the nature of business is changing to become more customer-focused. This year as in the past several, the enterprise architecture initiatives described by the majority of our winners had greater responsiveness to customers as a key objective.

Recently, a Forrester report outlining the top technology trends for enterprise architects to watch concluded that “the age of the customer” will compel firms to invest in fully integrated “end to end” solutions, as opposed to point solutions. I agree with the observation, but I would add that the organic, Internet-infused nature of modern business means that EA can no longer think in terms of grand top-down blueprints -- at least not with the expectation that they will have lasting value.

That’s why “architect” is something of a misnomer for what a modern enterprise architect does. Buildings are static, while businesses -- especially businesses intent on rapid response to customers’ fluctuating needs -- must morph constantly or falter. Today, enterprise architects need to develop frameworks with constant change as a first principle and understand that lines of business need the latitude to develop or procure their own solutions.

The new, decentralized IT accepts that those closest to the customer understand requirements best, and a centralized, top-down IT structure can’t possibly move fast enough to develop all solutions for internal stakeholders. Telling stakeholders to queue up and wait their turn ad infinitum is a great way to ensure they'll go off on their own. Worst case, this can result in a hodgepodge of point solutions that can't scale or properly integrate with the rest of the enterprise.

Going forward, architects need to develop frameworks that empower people but at the same time prevent them from making poor choices. Best practices must be enforced, and pre-approved services and technologies need to be promoted so that stakeholders can experiment and evaluate exciting new solutions without going off the rails. With the right guidelines, particularly those involving data governance and properly formed APIs, what could have been siloed point solutions can be integrated into end-to-end solutions.

The legacy stereotype of the architect evokes an ivory-tower draftsperson, concocting detailed plans for transformation -- few of which are implemented. Today, more than ever, we need architects who can envision the fluid nature of business and create frameworks that empower rather than constrain creative developers and consumers of systems throughout the enterprise.

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