Ever heard the old saw – perhaps in a crowded sports arena or while standing in front of the TV on game day –, “You’d make a better door than a window?” The idea, of course, is that one can see through a window but not a door.
When it comes to enterprise architecture, whether viewed from the business end, or from a services perspective, today’s question is: “Should EA be treated as a blueprint by strategic decision makers and other stakeholders, or as more of a roadmap?” Although some EA practitioners use both of those terms in the same breath, they shouldn’t be used interchangeably, or synonymously – not in the context of EA that facilitates strategic decision-making.
For Good Reasons, Blueprints Have Always Been Very Prescriptive
If you intend to build something new, there is usually more than one way of going about it. Some builders have been known to hack things out until success is either achieved, or exasperation leads them to failure. Those more practiced at it will build things by developing a design, often reflected in a blueprint, so that their work can be executed by either themselves, or by third parties, in a manner quite similar to what the design specifies. Though most information technology (IT) specialists might opt for the design-to-build over the hack-away-at-it approach, design blueprints really aren’t the best answer to what needs to be done to transform an enterprise.
Nearly everyone has a rough idea of what blueprints are used for. A classical blueprint is a large-format reproduction, usually of an architectural or engineering plan. Often, they capture the planned design for a future home or building. In the case of a home, if one knows the style, approximate size, number of rooms, the intended use of each room, whether a basement is needed or not, the type of heating to be employed, and where to situate the home on a plot of land, blueprints can be procured to contain vital information about the size, as well as the numeric equations involved, and the scope and type of construction needed. They are incredibly important to ensure that measurements are correct and that the building will be soundly constructed.
To facilitate the construction of large projects, blueprints are prepared by architects and engineers who specialize in particular fields, such as bridge engineering, building architecture, pipeline design, industry-specific structures, or special mechanical structures such as vehicles or aircraft. Structural engineering and design has existed since humans first started to construct buildings. It became a more defined profession with the emergence of the architecture profession as distinct from the engineering profession during the industrial revolution, late in the nineteenth century. Until then, the architect and the structural engineer were often one and the same – known as the master builder.
Dating back to the Code of Hammurabi – ca. 1790 B.C. –, the penalty for structural failure has been fairly harsh: “If a builder has built a house for a man and has not made his work sound, and the house which he has built has fallen down and so caused the death of the householder, that builder shall be put to death.”
By the fifteenth century, English Common Law still held that: “If a carpenter undertakes to build a house and does it ill [i.e., not well], an action will lie against him.”
B y the time of the Napoleonic Code, the penalty was still quite stiff: “If there is a loss in serviceability in a constructed project within 10 years of its completion because of a foundation failure or from poor workmanship, the contractor and architect will be sent to prison.”For good reasons blueprints have always been prescriptive in nature and strictly enforced. After all, ordinary people didn’t necessarily have the means to fathom the deep mysteries of blueprints in olden times – even those who could read regular text. That’s why engineers and architects were expected to perform their calculations most accurately and render the resulting specifications quite precisely. Those relying on approved blueprints for construction purposes were conditioned to depend on the expertise and integrity of the architects and engineers, ever mindful of their own potential liability for any failure to adequately instantiate them, sometimes long after the work was done.
Even today, on construction projects of all types, the integrity of blueprints and the fidelity of their implementation are called into question – think, for example, of forensic investigations that have taken place since 9/11, on the design and construction of the World Trade Center in New York City, and since Hurricane Katrina, on the causes of the devastation in and around the city of New Orleans. Roadmaps, On the Other Hand, Help to Expose a Range of Possibilities
Whether digitized for electronic viewing or printed the old fashioned way, on paper, the virtues of an ordinary roadmap are also appreciated by most people. A trip in search of a new restaurant or a job interview creates an immediate need for directions on how to get there. A good roadmap for the local area provides a context for the trip, once the desired destination is located. An estimate can be made of the distance involved and the time it will take to make the trip, what landmarks or other reference points can be taken into account along the way, as well as the optional routes that one might want to consider – allowing, for example, a choice between a more scenic versus a shorter or faster route.
As the trip is undertaken, a roadmap permits additional choices to be made en route, in response to unexpected roadblocks or traffic conditions. Indeed, a good roadmap (and perhaps a navigator too) permits a new choice to be possible at every newly encountered cross-road. The available options at each intersection are indicated by the map, though a decision to turn left or right (or around) may be influenced by other things not found on the map – such as a fruit stand, a “yard sale” sign, or a detour sign – or by changes in traffic conditions. Such deviating choices can be made without abandoning one’s original destination, though the traveler(s) would presumably factor in the “costs (e.g., in additional distance and travel time, etc.) to be incurred by departing from the originally chosen path. A phone call might also need to be placed, to change a reservation or to otherwise alert someone of a change in arrival plans.
An extended road trip to a distant destination presents an opportunity to use roadmaps somewhat differently. One high-level map is often used to plot the entire round-trip. If the trip is a cross-country one, e.g., from Boston to San Francisco, one might plan to take a southern route instead of a more northerly one. The entire trip can then be broken into legs, or stages, each perhaps equivalent to a single day’s journey. One result of such a high-level planning exercise is a bounded scope of the anticipated trip – as planned from the outset.
One can then contemplate the intervals between each leg (or phase) of the trip to determine what type of lodging and other essentials will be needed, and of so, where and how to obtain them. It is at these junctures that the use of a local roadmap comes in handy, and can be used just as a map proves useful in one’s own hometown – to locate restaurants, stores, gas stations, and the like. During the first “layover” – on a road trip started in Boston, let’s say the first leg ends in the nation’s capital –, a choice can be made to lodge downtown or out-of-town, depending perhaps on whether one wants to stay for a day and see what the city has to offer or else, avoid the density of the city by seeking less congestion in the surrounding area.
Regardless of the length of the intervals between legs (or stages) of the coast-to-coast trip, a local roadmap will help keep a traveler from getting lost in the unfamiliar place. It will also help determine whether to continue the trip exactly as originally planned, or even the course, as a result of what is learned about conditions in the immediate locale or due to unexpected changes in the environment, such as a sudden storm passing through or news of road construction or a bridge closure.
One might even choose to linger longer in the vicinity of Washington, in the case of a sudden vehicle breakdown or an illness experienced by a fellow traveler – or due to a local attraction in the area, perhaps advertized on the map, which hadn’t been previously anticipated but (by consensus) shouldn’t be missed. Such changes in travel plans may impact the original schedule for the trip, if adjustments to the remaining stages of the journey are not feasible, in which case the travelers are likely to adjust their expectations accordingly.
Once the cross-country trip is restarted, the high-level trip plan (as updated by any needed adjustments) is again used as a guide for navigating the next leg of the journey. During each stay-over following successive legs of the trip, or even at any stopping point in-between, roadmaps can be used not just to keep the travelers oriented, allowing them to find local sites of interest while keeping the destination of the entire journey in mind, but also to reveal lots of new possibilities – and alternatives – that could influence the direction and pace of what remains of the trip.
Quite possibly, more determined travelers will want to continue the trip as planned, with as few distractions and changes as possible – as if the original plan had been adopted as a blueprint (or contract of sorts) for the entire trip –, while others will demonstrate higher degrees of tolerance to deviations from the agreed travel plan, preferring to take advantage of some unexpected opportunities offered by the reality of having made it to that particular juncture of time and space.
Presumably, consensus is reached by all travelers at each significant decision point, perhaps through an informal process of comparing the pros and cons of each viable alternative, before agreement is reached on the next course of action – as adjustments are also made, either collectively or individually, to the expectations for the entire traveling experience. With the benefit of good and reliable roadmaps, decisions about proposed changes in course or schedule will be much better informed, in that the implications of contemplated changes can be viewed in light of all the choices that could be made, in any given place at any point in time – still in the context of the overall travel plan (as adjusted to date).
Why Enterprise Architecture Makes a Better Roadmap than a Blueprint
The answer to this one has everything to do with the nature of an enterprise, and how difficult it is to manage, much less transform, a large and complex enterprise – consisting of not just the people, processes, and technologies that enable it to operate, but also the combustible mix of historical, cultural, political, economic, and social influences that operate within it, as a microcosm of the larger environment in which the enterprise itself constantly strives to remain both relevant and effective. It also takes a very long time to change a large-scale enterprise – and the passage of time has a devastatingly corrosive effect on the best laid plans of strategic planners.
Though blueprints, when thorough and clearly specified, do serve well the architectural purpose of helping to ensure that buildings and bridges are constructed soundly enough to withstand earthquakes and other natural calamities, that’s not why enterprises employ or retain, in either the public or the private sectors, the services of enterprise architects.
Long experience with blueprints has shown that they work better when applied to new construction projects, than they do for remodeling old, longstanding structures, especially when the existing structure is considerably damaged – and/or when the original design documents cannot be found. Blueprints also work well when major structural changes are undertaken – as Boeing has done to expand its 747-line of aircraft frames over time – in a highly-controlled environment, with unfettered access to the entire library of predecessor design documents. In the latter case, the redesigned structure soon becomes a newly designed one in its own right, with a new set of blueprints, given that virtually all of the previously approved structural specifications were necessarily modified to satisfy the requirements of the successor craft, or were extensively reevaluated to ascertain that certain aspects of the original design remain valid.
New enterprises, however, are seldom started from scratch. Even in the case of a major reorganization, where more than one previously independent entity is folded into an umbrella-type of larger enterprise, it is rare to find that one or more of pre-existing enterprises had been governed with the aid of enterprise architecture.
Another consideration, when it comes to the specificity of blueprints, is that they require a high degree of maintenance, with costly changes needing to be approved and constantly incorporated as the construction of a complex structure progresses – i.e., if a complete set of reliable blueprints is expected to survive the construction period (to support proper maintenance of the completed structure). For relatively short building projects, it is usually not hard to keep a structure’s design documentation up to date. Yet, the longer a project takes, for example if a labor strike or some other unforeseen circumstance causes an extensive delay in completing construction, many other conditions can emerge in the meantime – like the economic recession we’re experiencing now –, to either halt the project in its tracks, or lead to a major change in the planned use of the property. The point is that initiatives planned for full realization in three, five, ten, or more years – which time span is not unusual for transforming the business of a large enterprise – are more likely to be impacted by changes in technology and other innovations, as well as all manner of environment changes.
“Plans are nothing; planning is everything .”(i)
As in the analogy of a van-full of cross country travelers discussed above, the strategic planning function of a large enterprise can anticipate and project, with the help of architecture, a desired destination (or future state) for the enterprise. Valid “transition” plans can also be prepared for the purpose of guiding the enterprise from where it is today to the desired destination, or future operational state. Strategic decisions, however, are typically made on an annual cycle – including IT related investment decisions.
Like the intervals between the day-long legs of the cross-country trip, it is the beginning of the annual review cycle for capital investments (including IT investments) that presents the best opportunity for enterprise leaders to reach a new consensus on what to do next, with respect to how much a given year’s decisions will impact both the short-and long-term progress to be made along the road to transformation.
At these critical junctures, strategic decision makers can make good use of EA that exposes the alternatives available to them as each decision is weighed. Unlike a blueprint, which presumes that its specifications must be strictly satisfied at the risk of total failure, the EA (like a good roadmap) would serve to indicate all of the viable investment options to be considered, given conditions that prevail at the present time and place, along with the relative pros and cons of each alternative. With the benefit of reliable EA that functions as a roadmap, decisions about proposed changes in course will be much better informed, in that the implications of contemplated changes can be viewed in light of all the choices that could be made, yet still in the context of the overall Transition Plan (as adjusted to date).Each successive year, when the investment review cycle rolls around again, updated EA can be re-used not just to reorient the decision makers, allowing them to find the rationale for making their fresh investment choices while keeping the destination of the entire transformation initiative in mind, but also to reveal lots of new possibilities – and alternatives – that could have the impact of influencing the direction and pace of what remains of the transformation drive.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Thirty-fourth President of the USA; on different occasion, he made the same point this way: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
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