Business Architecture: A Noble Profession

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Mr., DougMcDavid Enterprises
Educated as a generalist, Doug was among the "pioneer" class at UC Santa Cruz, and went on to a career in information, in systems, and in information systems. He led major automation projects for library functions, and the enterprise-wide application of network control, order processing, billing, and network engineering in an early data communications company. He’s done data and process modeling and enterprise architecture for telco, brokerage, banking, software, consulting, insurance, government (local, state, federal, and military), aerospace, high tech, consumer electronics, as well as secondary and higher education. He writes about people and technology in organizations.

The Profession
Let’s take a little time to think together about this profession, this discipline, that we call business architecture.  It’s not uncommon to find discussions about how to define this discipline, its responsibilities, and where it should report in an organization structure.  Let’s take a slightly different perspective here on the nature of this work.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that business architects are really serious about our role as the creators and keepers of the ‘architecture of business’.  We start from the premise that businesses should be seen as systems.  One thing we know is that all systems have architectures, but only through dedicated effort are these intrinsic architectures exposed via explicit representations.  To claim that we perform business architecture means that we are the ones who put forth that kind of dedicated effort.  We do that in order to enable our employers and clients to gain clear architectural understanding of their businesses, enterprises, and organizations of all kinds.

Business architects have the opportunity to be the keepers of knowledge about the whole business, and how it relates to its environment.  This is a highly ambitious, and, I suggest, a noble profession.  By that I mean that it can be admirable, praiseworthy, and respected for achieving significant and impressive results, but to do so requires honesty, courage, humility, and persistence. Has this potential has been realized?  Is this the recognized and expected state of affairs in every business and organization?  Isn’t it more the case that most of our potential is still in front of us, waiting to be achieved? What can we say about our motivation and mindset as business architects that might lead to better realization of our potential?

The Challenge for the Profession
The role of architect in any context implies holistic responsibility for the design and realization of whatever one is an architect of. Architecture envisions and articulates the vision of ‘the whole’.  Architecture necessarily focuses on connections of the various parts and components of the whole, as well as relationships to the context or environment where it exists.

So how does this apply when the ‘whole’ is the business itself? Various architectural perspectives may focus on parts and components.  But serious business or enterprise architecture has a unique focus on how the parts work together.  This includes, in particular, that the entirety of information technology (IT) constitutes a proper subset of the business.

Almost every business participant, below the CEO, has some specialized role and consequently a narrow focus.  Even the CEO needs to act as the public face of the business, and the driver of vision and direction.  It falls to business (enterprise) architects to have both a holistic scope of concern, as well as a detailed understanding of how the parts are joined up.

Business architects act as generalists in a world of specialists. This is a rare kind of position in today’s world.  We can think of business architecture as a noble position by virtue of standing out as the point of convergence of various forms of enterprise knowledge.  True business architects take on a level of responsibility for understanding and depicting the business in all its many dimensions.  However, this scope of concern is largely unrecognized and under-appreciated.

Living Organizations
More fundamentally, the challenge for business architecture stems from the fact that a business is not an inert, mechanical system that can be designed and manufactured, constrained only by the laws of physics.  Instead, a business exists as a complex autonomous living system, formed by a loose federation of autonomous human beings.

The living nature of organizations manifests itself in various ways.  For instance, two companies with the same business model, in the same industry, can have quite varied architectures.  Especially, when it comes to cultures, manner of treating stakeholders, outsourcing, etc., one company may be very nurturing to employees and other stakeholders, using a ‘conscious capitalism’  approach, while the other may be quite closed and micromanaged.  These different architectural aspects can have a tremendous impact on the business as a whole, and need to be reflected in architectural representations.

We know we’ve reached a milestone of success when we get enveloped by the realization that we’re dealing with the organization as a form of life.   This notion contrasts with the common understanding of organizations as mechanical systems.

Early in my career I had the opportunity to observe the phenomenon of organizational life from two different perspectives.  This realization first hit me during a project that introduced new information technology into a public-facing municipal agency.  I observed that a kind of coevolution was underway between the agency and its IT systems.  As the organization assimilated more IT functionality, the users kept innovating better ways to work, and this in turn led to further demands on IT.  Unfortunately, this coevolution, or synergy, was inhibited by the limited ability of the technology provider to keep up with the agency’s desires to leverage IT to better serve its stakeholders.  There was life in the organization struggling to evolve, but IT constraints limited it from reaching its full potential.

Later I had the opportunity to lead the development of an enterprise-wide application at a data communications company.  Here I felt the co-evolutionary pressure from the other side, since my team was provider of a complex and comprehensive IT system.  We tuned ourselves to be as responsive as possible to the evolving needs of the company.  We could see that there was no real ‘end state’. Our responsive perspective got to the point that we took to having daily, early morning meetings with operational managers, which we called “The Breakfast Club”.  The purpose of these meetings was to negotiate standardized use of database fields and application code changes.  These changes often went into production as soon as the next business day.

Both of these early career episodes could have benefited from a business architecture perspective.  Unfortunately, the field had not been invented or named at that point in time.  These episodes also occurred decades before the Agile Manifesto was formalized, which would have helped.

Architecting Organization Health
Once we understand the organization as a living system, it’s easy to notice patterns of lack of health and wellbeing.  The reality is that companies live and die.  Just before a company dies, it’s extremely ill. And before it get to that point it’s probably quite sick, and earlier still it was just a little bit queasy.  Business architects need to become experts in recognizing when organizations are unhealthy.  It’s not pleasant to be in a committed relationship with an unhealthy business, or to live though the trauma of a dying organization.

This living system perspective leads to profound insight into many of the perennial problems facing organizations.  For instance, we can quickly see situations where the mythical man month is in play, with overstaffed and overly complicated teams.  We can detect the positive and negative consequences and behaviors in situations of centralized vs. shadow IT organizations.  We can evaluate the architectural implications of vendor lock-in and outsourcing.  And so forth.

Semantic patterns provide conceptual networks to capture and integrate details of all sorts of business areas.  This allows us to see patterns of gaps and overlaps, and detect unhealthy conditions throughout the business.

Stepping Up to the Challenge
Today, the basic problem is as it’s always been, only more so. Businesses confront numerous barriers to effective delivery of their strategies. In most businesses there is great confusion of overlapping and intersecting projects, which often lead to out-of-control spending.  Today’s businesses feel pressure to undertake ‘digital transformations’, while at the same time maintaining systems and processes that maintain daily operations.  Robotics and artificial intelligence appear to be taking over the world, destroying jobs as they go.  We never seem to fully recover from the latest big crisis before the next one comes along.  People feel captive to least common denominator, commodity jobs.  Morale is often very low.

Effective business architects are continuously stepping into the unknown.  We really have no comfort zone, when it comes integration across multiple domains of knowledge.  It’s easy to understand why business architects might not necessarily want to step up to this challenge.  Most of us still come to the role from an IT background.  Since the full potential for the role of business architecture is not widely acknowledged, we tend to find a niche in the CIO’s office where we produce high-level models as context for IT initiatives. In the language of systems science we all too often fail to achieve the ‘requisite variety’ to fully address the strategic and operational needs of joined-up businesses.

Unfortunately, business architects are often tempted to hide our abilities.  Because we are not attuned to thinking of ourselves as superstars, we all too often avoid the glare of the spotlight.  We are often seduced by the temptation to stay at a high level, where business issues can be divorced from technology issues, or we stay at such an abstract level that our models can’t possibly be wrong.  Business architecture can become a handmaiden of IT, which supports the business, and simply avoids confronting real business issues.  It takes courage and a noble attitude to overcome these temptations. Often we fall into the mode where we model continuously, withholding our work from intensive scrutiny until such time as it achieve a state of perfection.

Business architects who do venture forth into the enterprise as a whole, or even further into the extended enterprise, find ourselves living by our wits.  This is a dangerously exposed mission, and requires nobility of purpose.  A talisman for business architects is a mindset attuned to the notion of the knowledge graph.  Our ability to capture and navigate a web of concepts provides the key to mapping local business situations to the universe of business wisdom and technical knowledge.  Such mappings provide linkage to current thinking about digital disruption, as well as timeless ideas from the likes of James Grier Miller, Stafford Beer, Alfred Korzybski, and Emery & Trist.  When in doubt we need to remember that our advantage is that we can capture the map of maps, and the graph of graphs.

Clarity Trumps Contention
We can always anticipate some level of contentiousness whenever business architecture enters into areas that are guarded by threshold guardians of the various specializations.  These business areas include product and service innovation, marketing and sales, keepers of the money (finance and accounting), legal and regulatory compliance, operations areas of procurement and fulfillment, and the so-called ‘human resources’ areas of hiring and training.

A critical success factor for business architecture is the ability to form alliances with, and provide value for, these various guardians of specialties.  It is actually amazing how the patterns of generic information and organizational structures allow business architects to cut through the clutter of domain-specific terminology, and quickly reach a level of fluency with specialized organizations of all kinds.  The ability to speak various business languages goes a long way to fostering and trust and understanding across disparate domains.

Business architecture provides the potential to achieve an unprecedented level clarity.  Our maps of the business territory can become indispensable to the executives and managers who create strategies and execute plans.  Business architects play the role of smart service providers to our respective institutions. The smart services we provide can provide incredibly valuable clarity of purpose and operation.  No one else is going to do what we do.

And yet, we often have to fight hard for the mere opportunity to serve.  We’re engaged in an ongoing struggle for mindshare and budget to simply continue to exist in this role.  We need to resist the temptation to turn inward on the BA function itself, modeling for the sake of modeling, and keeping our heads down in the trenches.

The key to the success of business architecture is the impact we can have, even on areas of the business that may be hostile.  I will never forget the executive vice president who cornered me in the hall one day to complain bitterly that he was unable to do his job properly without the work of my team.  He recognized the business value, but was unhappy that he didn’t fully control what we were doing and our positive impact on ‘his’ business.

Which leads to the recognition that a sure sign of success for any business or enterprise architecture effort is the extent to which various managers struggle to take control of it.  We recognize that our efforts have succeeded when various managers adopt our work as their own, use it presentations to even higher level managers, develop training programs, and incorporate an architectural view into their leadership regimes.

Achieving a Level of Nobility
Does it make sense now when I claim that we should regard business architecture as a noble profession?

  • Because it has high potential value
  • Because it holds the key and the map to the enterprise and its environment
  • Because it fosters adaptiveness, health, and wellbeing of individuals organizations, and communities
  • Because it embraces technology in service to human relationships
  • Because its potential is still largely unrealized
  • Because it is very challenging work that is not widely acknowledged
  • Because it’s a journey, with uncertain outcomes

The noble profession of business architecture is embarked on an unending quest for knowledge.  We have a single-minded mission to break through the barriers of parochialism, and slay the dragon of silo mentality. Successful business architects have joined that effort, and pursue it with persistence, integrity and joy! Are you up to the challenge?


1-  “To understand stakeholder relationships, an additional kind of intelligence is required: systems intelligence.”  Mackey, John and Sisodia, Rajendra, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, Harvard Business Review Press, 2012.

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