The Essence of Business Architecture

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President, TSG, Inc.
William Ulrich is President of TSG, Inc. and a strategic planning consultant specializing in business / IT alignment. He has worked with numerous large corporations and government agencies in the area of business / IT alignment. Mr. Ulrich has written several books and published hundreds of articles. His latest book is Business Architecture: The Art and Practice of Business Transformation. Mr. Ulrich is a Former Editorial Director of and Co-founder of the Business Architecture Guild and an advisor to the Penn State Enterprise Architecture Advisory Group.

There continues to be confusion over the practice of business architecture and the role of the business architect. One way to clear this up is to examine other forms of architecture and the related role of the architect. First, we should restate the industry definition. Business architecture is “A blueprint of the enterprise that provides a common understanding of the organization and is used to align strategic objectives and tactical demands.”1 The concept of a blueprint that promotes common understanding implies that business architecture allows business professionals to visualize the business from a variety of perspectives. This is the essence of business architecture.

Consider practical uses of a blueprint in the world of architecture. When you plan to build a room addition, rewire a building or retrofit a bridge, blueprints provide the foundation for figuring out where and how changes should be applied. Consider another example from the 1997 movie Titanic. The ship’s architect happened to be on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. When senior officers needed to understand the impact of the damage caused by the iceberg, the architect pulled out the ship’s blueprints and in a few seconds conveyed the breadth and depth of the damage to the senior officers. The captain quickly issued orders to get everyone into the lifeboats.

You can similarly obtain a blueprint of a city, which depicts the overall infrastructure of roads, water system, major structures, electrical grid and so forth. Understanding a company or government agency is much like understanding a city, with each building being a self-contained, functional silo. In a city, the parts are interconnected and a major fire, water system failure or electrical grid failure can bring down the city just as a supply chain failure or information breach could bring down a company.

The blueprint provides readily understood views of various infrastructures to individuals who may not be architects, but who still need certain information to make and implement decisions. For a city, this includes city planners, city council and mayor. The business architecture blueprint provides readily understood views of the enterprise, at varying levels of detail, which can be useful to a wide range of business professionals. The audience for business architecture includes executives, project planners, portfolio managers, risk managers, supply chain teams, business analysts and IT architecture counterparts.

When executives have a complex issue they need to tackle, particularly when it crosses functional silos, they require views of the business that allow them to envision the cause of the problem and potential solutions. Consider a situation where executives want to know why customers are angry and going to the competition. From a business architecture perspective, this means understanding customer facing business capabilities; organizational units that own those capabilities; related value streams and customer touch points; and the flow of customer information across the enterprise. Discovering redundancy, inconsistency or fragmentation across these structures signals potential root cause problems.

The business architecture must be able to convey this information to executives in a way that is readily understood and can lead to a series of strategic decisions on how to proceed. Business architecture generated visualizations foster intelligent conversations of the as-is state of the business and the issues that need to be addressed. This analysis also leads to more targeted initiatives to perform another level of analysis that would lead to proposed solutions.

Drill down analysis, from a city architecture perspective, requires more detailed understanding of citywide infrastructure, such as detailed water system diagrams or blueprints for individual bridge structures. From a business architecture perspective, subsequent levels of analysis require digging into impacted business unit silos; decomposing relevant business capabilities; breaking information into additional detail; understanding where redundant processes exist; and determining how those processes impact IT related interfaces.

Based on visualizations and analysis derived from the business architecture, executives are likely to request that the team draft views of the target business architecture and a transition plan to move towards an agreed upon solution. The transition plan would in turn spawn a series of projects to consolidate and streamline business capabilities, semantics, processes and related IT applications and data structures. Business architects would continue to serve as advisors on these projects, just as other architects continue to advise structural or city planning projects.

The difference between a city, building or ship’s architecture and business architecture is that the business was not originally based on a formal blueprint. As a result, the business architect must derive the business architecture from the working business. This requires creating an infrastructure that allows for the representation and visualization of organizational structures, capabilities, value streams, business processes, semantics and rules, projects, suppliers, goals and strategies, and relationships to IT architecture where required. Note that these are relationship models and not process flows.

While the business architect may discover that certain business processes or capability models are lacking or poorly documented, it is not the business architect’s job to create these models or documents. Getting trapped in the minutia of building or integrating business processes, for example, would cast the business architect out of the role of architect and into the role of business process analyst – and these are two very different roles.

The role of the business architect is to focus on gathering and synchronizing information about the business necessary to allow a wide variety of business professionals to view the current state of the business as input to situation analysis, problem solving, strategic planning, project planning and prioritization. Based on strategic plans and objectives, business architects can additionally assist with creating the as-is view of business architecture along with transition options. These tasks are the essence of business architecture and must remain the laser-like focus of the business architect.

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