How Many Napkins Have to Die Needlessly? A Case for Business Architecture

  • Written By: J. Dowling
  • Published: April 5 2000


IT Management Issue

Whether designing a new information system, assessing the impact of a purchased package, planning for integration with an application service provider, performing due diligence for a merger or acquisition, or identifying opportunities for cost reduction, the question is: "What is the necessary and appropriate information technology architecture."

The perfect architecture is functional, simple and clearly understood. It must be functional to serve two constituencies. First, the business manager's processes will be enabled and optimized through systems built on its capabilities. Second, information technologists must build in compliance with architectural guidelines. This balance of operational vision and constrained realization is the measure of good architecture. Let's step out of the business world for a minute to get a mental image of functional and non-functional architecture.

Near the center of Boston, Massachusetts is a green area called The Boston Common. It originally was a place where residents of the city grazed cattle during the day. A legend tells us: At afternoon milking time, the cows wandered home using whatever path they had become accustomed to. When it came time to pave streets, the stone and tar was laid down over the cow droppings so as not to confuse the beasts morning and evening journeys. The result - virtually no parallel streets, named with no rhyme or reason and a lot of lost tourists. The architecture of Boston's street plan is non-functional now that the cows have moved to the suburbs.

Thomas Jefferson had a good deal of time to plan Washington D.C. and he put the time to good use. He designed a Nation's Capital and a City and a Monument. He created a focal point where the seat of government lay. He placed reminders (places for monuments) behind the capitol buildings to remind officials of the route that those before had taken. He left green spaces to suggest a link to nature and personal time. He radiated avenues out from the focal point and linked them with streets in concentric arcs. The result is an appealing, navigable plan that serves multiple purposes. A functional, simple, and readily understood architecture.

Without an analogous architecture for the enterprise, information technologists can not be expected to work efficiently or effectively. Rather, disconnected application systems, inconsistent data, erratic system performance and unpredictable project costs should be expected. Architecture establishes a vital framework for how various information technology products and systems are put together to create robust infrastructure and application systems that deliver business value to the enterprise.

Business Implications

Any major business transformation involving information technology systems as an enabler or catalyst requires a documented business architecture for the process and systems. Without such documentation, people will go to the coffee room, pull another napkin from the holder and design the enterprise business architecture based on their recollection and educated guesses about how things should work. If they guess right, good results are enabled. If they guess wrong, resulting solutions will be of unpredictable value.

To compound the waste, each team working on process improvement or business transformation will spend time creating a business architecture to support their project. Various teams are unlikely to guess identically, yet all of their solutions need to fit together to improve enterprise performance. Fundamental assumptions about the business should not be left to chance.

Designing a business architecture is not a difficult task. A skilled consultant or manager can put one together in a matter of days. Bringing consensus commitment to the validity of the architecture is yet another story. The old saw: "It is easy to agree on concepts; almost impossible to commit a group to action" becomes appropriate. When the drawing that shows how customers interface with the enterprise, marketing connects to engineering, finance sits between sales and logistics is laid out for all to ratify, there will inevitably be negative reactions.

The issue around consensus may come from errors or incompleteness, which can be fixed readily. The more difficult issues to resolve are rooted in "What was" and "What might be." Someone may see something in a configuration that does not work as well as it once did. The reaction is to return to the old model. Someone else may see something that could be better and try to force the change into this agenda. These and other issues often lead to stalemate, resulting in no agreed upon view within the company. If this happens, several red flags should be raised. Until everyone can agree upon how the company works today, they are probably not working efficiently or effectively together, let alone ready to lead change.

Information Technology Management Implications

Without a business architecture that is agreed upon and used by executive and line management, there is an excellent chance that disconnected systems will both be requested and built, resulting in an excessive and costly infrastructure that is increasingly resistant to change over time.

The initial construction of a business architecture helps to establish the need for infrastructure and to justify investment in such. It is a powerful tool that allows information technology managers to get ahead of applications deployment by helping business management understand why infrastructure needs to be built before the applications that depend upon it.

Once the business design is deployed, the value of information technology architecture design is greatly enhanced. When the two are linked to define the core processes and how they will be enabled through information technology, context becomes clear and the most important projects become apparent. Many napkins will be saved from becoming the temporary documentation of how the parts of the enterprise come together.

Business Management Response

Business management must describe the overarching framework of the enterprise so that all parties working towards optimized operations have a good chance of working in concert without having to be on the same team.

  1. Take the lead and obtain consensus around an architecture for the enterprise. The design should address:

    • The corporate (structural) strategy: Holding Company, Federated Companies or Integrated Enterprise.

    • Interconnection among functional units.

    • Flow of core business process.

    • Touch points between functional units and processes with customers and suppliers.

    • Supply and delivery chain of raw materials conversion to delivered products.

    • Mission, Vision, Values, Purpose, and Guiding Principles.

    • Business performance measures that drive desired behaviors, in the form of a Balanced Scorecard.

  2. Establish a Program Office to manage the process of business architecture design and governance as well to provide coordinated change integration across the enterprise.

  3. Insist upon the design of an information technology architecture and its application across the enterprise.

  4. Continually review the business architecture (quarterly or even bimonthly) for completeness and functional fit. Adjust as necessary and communicate the changes broadly.

Information Technology Management Response

Information Technology Management plays an essential role in making the business architecture real. As such, Information Technologists should use it as a framework for all designs and activities.

  1. Use the business architecture to design information technology architecture.

  2. Use the business architecture to relate every information systems project to the improvement of core business process and / or functional unit performance improvement.

  3. Look out beyond the current information systems agenda of projects to identify potential technologies and partners.

  4. Analyze changes to the business architecture to assess impact on current infrastructure and application systems as well as projects in progress or in queue. Adjust projects and systems appropriately.

comments powered by Disqus