Good IT architecture means knowing when to take control

How much of your IT architecture should you manage centrally? The answer depends on your organization's maturity

Should the management of your IT architecture be centralized or decentralized?

Last week's Advice Line took the position that ETAM (enterprise technical architecture management) is a regulatory function, and that this is a good thing. Regulation is, in other words, what businesses call compliance, and IT calls enforcing standards. While it might not be obvious, ETAM-as-regulator and decentralized ETAM are one and the same.

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You see, regulation is vital to performing many tasks responsibly and well. And those who create the regulations must be sophisticated practitioners for the regulations to provide positive assistance to those being regulated. Think building codes and you'll be pointed in the right direction.

But the regulatory model leaves quite a few necessary responsibilities unassigned -- hence the need for decentralized ETAM decision making.

The upside of a decentralized approach

Decentralized ETAM has several advantages:

  • Less wasted effort: Because the centralized architecture function doesn't spend time designing placeholders for future technology implementations that might never happen, there's less wasted effort with decentralized ETAM.
  • Empowerment: Because the centralized planning function leaves more decisions to the teams on the ground, there's more empowerment for those actually doing the work.
  • Practicality: When decisions are made by teams that have to abide by them, practicality is the only possible outcome.

Decentralized ETAM leaves a lot of responsibilities to those who must conform to the regulations but are also responsible for figuring out what is needed and how to build it. This week, at the risk of muddying the waters, I'll argue for a more centralized approach. Regulation is still part of it, but other responsibilities are layered on top.

In favor of centralized IT architecture management

As a reminder, for good architecture to happen, someone has to:

  • Characterize, creating and maintaining an accurate description of the architecture as it actually exists.
  • Diagnose, taking inventory of the deficiencies of the current state.
  • Analyze the business drivers, assessing the internal factors driving change to the current state.
  • Analyze industry trends, assessing the external factors driving change to the current state.
  • Design the target architecture, a responsibility that includes:
    1. Developing a services-based view of the desired future state -- an architecture that fixes current deficiencies, adds services called for by identified business drivers, and deals with whatever challenges and opportunities industry trends create.
    2. Deciding the class of technology to be used for each service and the specific product to standardize on for each technology class. This, combined with current-state assessment (diagnosis), becomes "portfolio management."
    3. Establishing a set of design principles -- the definition of "what we mean by good engineering here." Design principles are where ETAM establishes whether the architecture is federated or app-centric; whether the default decision is build or buy; the default extent to which IT stays current with new releases; and so on.
  • Promote ETAM by incorporating it into every IT methodology and practice that affects the technical architecture (pretty much all of them), as well as changing the IT and business culture so that good architecture is how we do things around here.
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