Testing the Waters: Starting a Business Architecture Practice

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President, Strategic Value Partners
Neal McWhorter is the President of Strategic Value Partners, a specialty consulting firm that provides leadership for organizations looking to improve the business benefits they derive from their technology investment. Neal's lead major re-engineering and modernization projects as well as worked to help organizations build their own internal capabilities. Neal has worked with multiple large organizations to help them gain improved productivity and time-to-market by leveraging techniques including Business Process and Business Rules analysis. In the last couple of years Neal's focused a lot of his attention on the Business Architecture approach as a way of helping organizations gain visibility into how their portfolio of initiatives interrelate and helping them rationalize conflicting demands.

Many organizations are in the process of starting or considering whether they should be starting a Business Architecture practice. But most are still working to decide what they practice really looks like. Starting a new practice area is never easy and the risks that a new practice might not succeed are high. To make sure that your organization’s Business Architecture practice doesn’t fall victim to this risk it is important to have a plan for how to grow your practice.

Any plan starts with a vision of the end goal in mind. In the case of Business Architecture that goal is all about improving the ability of an organization to effectively deliver value to its customers and stakeholders. Business Architecture is all about helping organizations become much more effective at doing what they are already doing. Getting that message out is the first step in building a Business Architecture practice. In these difficult times approaches that help organizations improve their effectiveness are in great demand and since Business Architecture is one of the most effective ways of tackling this it should also be in great demand. Take advantage of the situation by making sure that the decision makers understand that Business Architecture is all about getting more bang for the buck.

Once you’ve established a high level goal for Business Architecture in your organization, it’s time to move to the next step which is finding the right place within an organization. As with most initiatives, having the right kind of sponsorship is essential to getting a practice area established. In the case of Business Architecture the right level is generally somewhere between the C-level and the program level. There are advantages and disadvantages to starting at one end or the other. When a practice is started at the C-level, it has the ability to have the greatest impact within an organization. By bringing Business Architecture in at the highest level there is an opportunity to have an impact on how high level goals are mapped onto competitive differentiators and translated into programs. This is often the approach that organizations that have struggled to actualize their mission and value statement choose to focus upon.  But while this level provides the opportunity for the greatest impact it also has some of the greatest challenges. Introducing new individuals and practices into a senior level process requires that the individuals have strong and established relationships with key individuals within that process. Because of this, firms that are working to establish a Business Architecture practice at this level often recruit individuals who are already in this kind of position and work to build Business Architecture skills within this group of individuals.

At the other end of the spectrum are program level Business Architecture practices. A large number of organizations have adopted the idea of a program as being a framework for managing the pursuit of a longer-term initiative. These kinds of initiatives are typically intended to accomplish some major organizational goal. Each program is charged with identifying and either initiating or influencing a series of projects which taken together are tasked with achieving the program’s goal. How does this level of Business Architecture practice contribute to an organization? Most organizations have a variety of known problems that are considered intractable. Those problems typically have had multiple failed efforts to tackle them and yet they remain high priority in spite of this. These problems appear intractable because they require the coordination of work within multiple projects over an extended period of time. For many of the projects identified, the core purpose of the project isn’t the pursuit of this particular objective. Managing to accomplish the pieces that are required to pursue such an objective across these kinds of projects requires a coordinated vision of the tradeoffs and interaction between various competing goals within an organization. Business Architecture is the key tool for handling these kinds of pursuits.

Within the range of organizational positions that have been identified for a Business Architecture practice, there remains a large set of organizational possibilities. Each organization is different so it is important to examine the particular organization and determine where the right combination of factors exists to support such a practice. Some good guidelines to use when trying to determine if your organization is well positioned to support a proposed Business Architecture practice is to ask questions like:

  • Do the sponsors feel strongly that the lack of alignment and visibility into how higher level objectives are being pursued is a major issue for their organization?
  • Are the people who will staff a Business Architecture practice individuals that will be accepted as equal partners by the individuals that they will be working in partnership with?
  • Are there defined and achievable goals for the value that the Business Architecture practice will deliver?
  • Who are the consumers of the output of the Business Architecture practice’s efforts and do they agree that the deliverables will provide value for them?

Having determined the position that a Business Architecture practice will hold within an organization the next aspect to consider is the engagement model. An engagement model defines the degree of involvement and the responsibilities that a Business Architecture practice will be expected to accept. Most organizations pick one of three engagement models: the Supporting Model, the Advisory Model or the Consultative Model. The Supporting Model is the lightest level of engagement and it sets as the primary mission of a Business Architecture practice the delivery of models, guides and templates that support various other practices within an organization in integrating Business Architecture techniques into their existing practices. This model is generally appropriate where organizations don’t see a need for a dedicated Business Architecture role within their existing processes but see the need to improve the way that those existing processes work by adopting various aspects of a Business Architecture approach. The Advisory Model provides an additional degree of involvement beyond the Supporting Model by adding the expectation that a Business Architecture group will provide active assistance to individuals attempting to integrate Business Architecture techniques into their existing work. This model is often used in situations where organizations do not see the need to add a separate ongoing Business Architect role within their existing practices but they do not believe that they can adopt Business Architecture practices into these processes without the active assistance of individuals with expertise in Business Architecture techniques. The Consultative Model is the model in which a Business Architecture practice becomes most heavily involved in ongoing initiatives. In this model the Business Architecture practice assigns individuals into initiatives in order to implement Business Architecture techniques and to provide visibility and reporting to higher-level members of the organization. In this role the Business Architect is acting directly in the governance process instead of simply assisting other individuals in improving their practices. Because of the heavy commitment this kind of approach involves this model typically can only be adopted within very narrow and specialized circumstances and requires highly individuals with deep domain and organization knowledge as well as Business Architecture skills.

Finally, given the range of ways which a Business Architecture practice can be engaged within an organization it is necessary to determine what deliverables your practice will be responsible for. As an integrative governance practice Business Architecture typically doesn’t involve creating whole new sets of deliverables. Instead, Business Architecture practices typically start with the existing artifacts at whatever segment of an organization they are dealing with. These artifacts are then evaluated against a more general model of how elements of organizational motivation and analytical decision frameworks interrelate with each other1 to result in tactical operational decisions about how an organization will behave. From this a Business Architect can produce a gap analysis that indicates potential areas of weakness in the visibility and governance of how end-to-end alignment is being pursued within an organization. From this set of potential issues the Business Architect will be able to examine the issues surfaced by their organizations and suggest areas where these gaps represent one of the root-causes of alignment issues within the organization. Finally, the Business Architect can suggest changes to artifacts and processes in order to deal with the areas of concern that they’ve identified. Depending upon the organization, the Business Architect may also be given responsibility for monitoring and reporting on the various alignment issues that they have identified.

In summary the way that Business Architecture plays out within an organization can vary greatly. There is no one path that is the “right” way to build a Business Architecture practice. Succeeding with establishing a practice involves focusing on the visibility and alignment drivers for such a practice but making sure that each step along the way has a practical value to the organization that is pursuing the practice.  Business Architecture is a tool that organizations can use to deliver superior results by helping them shine the light on how objectives are being pursued and helping drive institutionalization of practices that will deliver this on an ongoing basis.

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