Business is intensely competitive these days. Under such intense pressure strategy usually breaks down into two things: do more of whatever is creating value, and do less of anything that doesn’t add value. This has put IT architecture in the firing line, as there seems to be a strong trend for architects to focus on technology and transformation, rather than business outcomes. If architects are not seen as taking responsibility for delivering a business outcome, then why does the business need them? I predict that business will start shedding the majority of their architects, just as they did in the eighties. Let’s say in six to eighteen months.
I heard a fascinating distinction the other day at breakfast. It’s the difference between “Architects” and “architects”. (That’s one with a little “a”, and the other with a large one.) It seems that some organisations have two flavours of architect. Those with the big “A” do the big thinking and the long meetings, they worry about the Enterprise, Application and Technology Architectures, and are skilled in the use of whiteboards. And those with the little “a” do the documenting and some implementation work, with Microsoft Visio and Word their tool of choice.
When did we starting trying to define an “Architect” as someone who doesn’t have some responsibility for execution? That’s a new idea for me. I thought that this Architect-architect split was a nice nutshell definition of what seems to be wrong with IT architecture at the moment.
We know that the best architects engage directly with the business and take accountability in providing solutions and outcomes the business cares about. However, splitting accountability between “Architects” and “architects” creates a structure and operation we know is potentially inefficient and disconnected from what’s really important. If the business sees architects (with either a big or little “a”) as not being responsible for delivering an outcome, then why does the business need them?
There’s a lot of hand wringing around the IT architecture community as proponents try to explain the benefits of architecture, and then communicate these benefits to the business. More often than not these efforts fall flat, with abstract arguments about governance, efficiency and business-technology alignment failing to resonate with the business.
“Better communication” might be pragmatic advice, but it ignores the fact that you need to be communicating something the audience cares about. And the business doesn’t care about governance, efficiency of the IT estate or business-technology alignment. You might: they don’t.
In my experience there are only three things that business does care about (and I generally work for the business these days).
- Create a new product, service or market
- Change the cost of operations or production
- Create new interactions between customers and the company
And this seems to be the root of the problem. Neither IT efficiency, nor or governance or business-technology alignment are on that list. Gartner even highlighted this in a recent survey when they queried more than 1,500 business and technology executives to find out their priorities going forward.
Business need their applications — and are willing to admit this — but do they need better technical infrastructure or SOA (whatever that is)? How does that relate to workforce effectiveness? Will it help sell more product? Eventually the business will reach a point where doing nothing with IT seems like the most pragmatic option.
There’s a few classic examples of companies who get by while completely ignoring the IT estate. They happily continue using decades old applications, tweaking operational costs or worrying about M&A, and making healthy profits all the while. Their IT systems were good enough and fully depreciated, so why bother doing anything?
So what is the cost of doing nothing? Will the business suffer if the EA team just up and left? Or if the business let the entire architecture team go? The business will only invest in an architecture function if having one provides a better outcome than doing nothing. The challenge is that architecture has become largely detached from the businesses they are supposed to support. Architecture have forgotten that they work in logistics company, a bank or a government department, and not for “IT”. The tail is trying to wag the dog.
Defining Architecture (that’s the one with a big “A”) as a group who think the big technological thoughts, and who attend the long and very senior IT vendor meetings just compounds the problem. It sends a strong message to the business that architecture is not interested in the helping the business with the problems that it is facing. Technology and transformation are seen as more important.
It also seems that the business is starting to hear this message, which means that action can’t be far behind. Unless architecture community wakes up and reorganises around to what’s really important — the things that business care about — then we shouldn’t be surprised if business starts shedding these IT architecture functions that the business sees as adding no value. I give it six to eighteen months.