Tag Archives: IT Strategy

The Value of Enterprise Architecture

Note: Updated with the slides and script from 2011’s lecture.

Is Enterprise Architecture in danger of becoming irrelevant? And if so, what can we do about it?

Presented as part of RMIT’s Master of Technology (Enterprise Architecture) course.

The Value of Enterprise Architecture

The problems we’re facing

Companies are engaged in an arms race. For years they have been rushing to beat competitors to market with applications designed to automate a previously manual area of the business, making them more efficient and thereby creating a competitive advantage.

Today, enterprise applications are so successful that it is impossible to do business without them. The efficiencies they deliver have irrevocably changed the business environment, with an industry developing around them a range of vendors providing products to meet most needs. It is even possible to argue that many applications have become a commodity (as Nicholas Carr did in his HBR article “IT Doesn’t Matter”), and in the last couple of years we have seen consolidation in the market as larger vendors snap up smaller niche players to round out their product portfolio.

This has levelled the playing field, and it’s no longer possible to use an application in the same way to create competitive advantage. Now that applications are ubiquitous, they’re simply part of the fabric of business.

Today, how we manage the operation of a business process is becoming more important that the business process itself. Marco Iansiti brought this into sharp relief through his work at Harvard Business Review when he measured the efficiency of deployment of IT, and not cost, and correlated upper quartile efficiency with upper quartile sales revenue growth. Efficiently dealing with business exceptions, optimizing key decisions and ensuring end-to-end consistency and efficiency will have a greater impact than replacing an existing application.

We are finished the big effort: applications are available from multiple vendors to support the majority of a business’s supporting functionality. The law of diminishing returns has taken effect, and owning or creating new IT asset today will not simply confer a competitive advantage. Competitive advantage now lives in the gaps between our applications. Exception handling is becoming increasingly important as good exception handling can have a dramatic impact on both the bottom- and top-line. If we can deal with stock-outs more efficiently then we can keep less stock on hand and operate a leaner supply chain. Improving how we determine financial adequacy allows us to hold lower capital reserves, freeing up cash that we can put to other more productive uses. Extending our value-chain beyond the confines of our organisation to include partners, suppliers and channels, allows us to optimize end-to-end processes. Providing joined-up support for our mortgage product model allows us to put the model directly in the hands of our clients, letting them configure their own, personal, home loan.

Link to the complete article.

It’s not enough to be good: we need to be original

We all like a good jacket. One that fits well and makes us feel good. But how long is it since we went to a specific tailor? Someone a friend recommended, perhaps, for doing a good job in the past.

The same trend is emerging in IT. The dynamics of how we provide IT services (either as external systems integrators, or internal IT departments) are changing. The did it, done it stories we’ve relied on in the past are becoming increasingly irrelevant to a business caught between globalization and spiraling competition. Where previously we built our reputations on being good—for delivering quality in the past—being good is no longer enough. We also need to be original.

Quality was a real problem when buying clothes in the 1800s. Without today’s quality standards and processes, you were never sure that you were going to get what you asked for. Even relatively recently, back when I was growing up, we used to pick through racks of t-shirts in the hope of getting one that wouldn’t twist out of shape in a few washes. Manufacturing was also expensive in the 1800s, with most people only able to afford the clothes they were wearing. A purchasing decision was a decision they would live with for a long time.

When quality is a problem, and the item you’re purchasing is expensive, managing risk becomes your biggest concern. How can you ensure that the product you asked for is the product you receive?

This is the situation IT has been in for some time. Four years, fifty million dollars are not uncommon figures in a world where you cannot buy a business capability off the rack. The closest we’ve come to this ideal are packaged applications, which is more akin to a DIY or flat packed kit where you provide some of the parts. The business still need tailors—system integrators or internal IT departments—to help put the parts together.

The solution—in both 18th century tailoring and with current IT—was to rely on someone with a track record. The did it, done it stories collected over a career provide some surety that they would receive the result they expected.

Tailoring has come a long way since then. Manufacturing processes have matured to the point where quality is simply another factor used by a procurement department to influence the final price. Quality is something a client can assume, and is no longer something actively managed.

The move away from did it, done it stories has radically changed the dynamics of the tailoring industry. We’ve seen the rise of designer labels which don’t manufacture, but which provide a unique image that many people want to associate themselves with. The traditional bespoke tailors have become boutiques which provide a unique service (an experience). The industry is also dominated by off-shore manufacturing providing quality at a low cost. The market seems to have broken into three layers.

The value triangle
The value triangle

At the top is value, where clients search the globe for the vendors which can provide them with something unique. This might be a designer which provides a specific image, or the local bespoke tailor who provides a unique experience. Or it might be the IT consultancy that brings you some unique insight into a business event (such as Sarbane-Oxley) or innovative ways to use a technology.

On the bottom are the industrialized capabilities—the factories that manufacture goods. These factories might be creating suits, running IT projects to even testing solutions. As the goods bought from factories are purchased on cost, and labour is the largest factor in cost, they typically migrate to the cheapest geography.

And finally, in the middle, are the clients concerned with risk management. These are the vendors who are good at something—vendors with did it, done it stories—which does not create any specific value, and that has not (yet) been industrialized into a factory.

We’ve seen the death of the traditional did it, done it story on shore (in the first world at least) for tailoring. We’re currently watching it play out for conventional enterprise applications.

The problem for tailors—and IT services—in the first world is that it is not enough to be good anymore. You need to be original.

Product Meta-Models

Imagine the future. Not the distant future, we’re talking about next week or maybe the week after rather than an eventual future where we all have flying cars. A new business competitor has emerged on the market, coming out of nowhere with a business model that makes it impossible for your company to compete. They have half the cost to serve of their competitors, half the time to revenue, they seem to be able to introduce a new product in a matter of days rather than weeks, and their products are incredibly customisable. They seem to have halved the business metrics that you want to go down, doubled the ones you want to go up, while as the same time supporting a product portfolio of impressive depth and complexity. And they claim to be able to do this with conventional technology. How did they do it? And how are you going to respond?

A version was published in Align Journal as Product Meta-Models:
Delivering business agility through a new perspective on technology
.

Link to complete article.

Applications let us differentiate, not!

Being involved in enterprise IT, we tend to think that the applications we build, install and maintain will provide a competitive advantage to the companies we work for.

Take Walmart, for example. During the early 80s, Walmart invested heavily in creating a data warehouse to help it analyze its end-to-end supply chain. The data was used to statically optimize Walmart’s supply chain, creating the most efficient, lowest cost supply chain in the world at the time. Half the savings were passed on to Walmart’s customers, half whet directly to the bottom line, and the rest is history. The IT asset, the data warehouse, enabled Walmart to differentiate, while the investment and time required to develop the data warehouse created a barrier to competition. Unfortunately this approach doesn’t work anymore.

Fast forward to the recent past. The market for enterprise applications has grown tremendously since Walmart first brought that data warehouse online. Today, applications providing solutions to most business problems are available from a range of vendors, and at a fraction of the cost required for the first bespoke solutions that blazed the enterprise application trail. Walmart even replaced that original bespoke supply chain data warehouse, which had become something of an expensive albatross, with an off-the-rack solution. How is it possible for enterprise applications to provide a competitive advantage if we’re all buying from the same vendors?

One argument is that differentiation rests in how we use enterprise applications, rather than in the applications themselves. Think of the manufacturing industries (to use a popular analogy at the moment). If two companies have access to identical factories, then they can still make different, and differentiated, products. Now think of enterprise applications as business process factories. Instead of turning out products, we use these factories to turn out business processes. These digital process factories are very flexible. Even if we all start with the same basic functionality, if I’m smarter at configuring the factory, then I’ll get ahead over time and create a competitive advantage.

This analogy is so general that it’s hard to disagree with. Yes, enterprise applications are (mostly) commodities so any differentiation they might provide now rests in how you use them. However, this is not a simple question of configuration and customization. The problem is a bit more nuanced than that.

Many companies make the mistake that customizing (code changes etc) their unique business processes into an application will provide them with a competitive advantage. Unfortunately the economics of the enterprise software market mean that they are more likely to have created an albatross for their enterprise, than provided a competitive advantage.

Applications are typically parameterized bespoke solutions. (Many of the early enterprise applications were bespoke COBOL solutions where some of the static information—from company name through shop floor configuration—has been pushed into databases as configuration parameters. ) The more configuration parameters provided by the vendor, the more you can bend the application to a shape that suits you.

Each of these configuration parameters requires and investment of time and effort to develop and maintain. They complicate the solution, pushing up its maintenance cost. This leads vendors to try and minimize the number of configuration points they provide to a set of points that will meet most, but not all customers’ needs. In practical terms, it is not possible to configure an application to let you differentiate in a meaningful way. The configuration space is simply too small.

Some companies resort to customizing the application—changing its code—to get their “IP” in. While this might give you a solution reflecting how your business runs today, every customization takes you further from a packaged solution (low cost, easy to maintain, relatively straight forward to upgrade …) and closer to a bespoke solution (high cost, expensive to maintain, difficult or impossible to upgrade). I’ve worked with a number of companies where an application is so heavily customized that it is impossible to deploy vendor patches and/or upgrades. The application that was supposed to help them differentiate had become an expensive burden.

Any advantage to be wrung from enterprise IT now comes from the gaps between applications, not from the applications themselves. Take supply chain for example. Most large businesses have deployed planning and supply chain management solutions, and have been on either the LEAN or Six Sigma journey. Configuring your planning solution slightly differently to your competitors is not going to provide much of an edge, as we’re all using the same algorithms, data models and planning drivers to operate our planning process.

Most of the potential for differentiation now lies with the messier parts of the process, such as exception management (the people who deal with stock-outs and lost or delayed shipments). If I can bring together a work environment that makes my exception managers more productive than yours—responding more rapidly and accurately to exceptions—then I’ve created a competitive advantage as my supply chain is now more agile than yours. If I can capture what it is that my exception managers do, their non-linear and creative problem solving process, automate it, and use this to create time and space for my exception managers to continuously improve how supply chain disruptions are handled, then I’ve created a sustainable competitive advantage. (This is why Enterprise 2.0 is so exciting, since a lot of this IP in this space is tacit information or collaboration.)

Simply configuring an application with today’s best practice—how your company currently does stuff—doesn’t cut it. You need to understand the synergies between your business and the technologies available, and find ways to exploit these synergies. The trick is to understand the 5% that really makes your company different, and then reconfiguring both the business and technology to amplify this advantage while commoditizing the other 95%. Rolls-Royce (appears to be) a great example of getting this right. Starting life as an manufacturer of aircraft engines, Rolls Royce has leveraged its deep understanding of how aircraft engines work (from design through operation and maintenance), reifying this knowledge in a business and IT estate that can provide clients with a service to keep their aircraft moving.

Managing technology, not applications

We’re getting it all wrong—we focused on managing the technology delivery process rather than the technology itself. Where do business process outsourcing (BPO), software as a service (SaaS), Web 2.0 and partner organisations sit in our IT strategy? All too often we focus on the delivery of large IT assets into our enterprise, missing the opportunity to leverage leaner disruptive solutions that could provide a significantly better outcome for the business.

IT departments are, by tradition, inward looking asset management functions. Initially this was a response to the huge investment and effort required to operate early mainframe computers, while more recently it has been driven by the effort required to develop and maintain increasingly complex enterprise applications. We’ve organised our IT departments around the activities we see as key to being a successful asset manager: business analysis, software development & integration, infrastructure & facilities, and project or programme management. The result is a generation of IT departments closely aligned with the enterprise application development value-chain, as we focus on managing the delivery of large IT assets into the enterprise.

Building our IT departments as enterprise application factories has been very successful, but the maturation of applications over the last decade and recent emergence of approaches like SaaS means that it has some distinct limitations today. An IT department that defines itself in terms of managing the delivery of large technology assets tends to see a large technology asset as the solution to every problem. Want to support a new pricing strategy? Need to improve cross-sell and up-sell? Looking for ways to support the sales force while in the field? Upgrade to the latest and greatest CRM solution from your vendor of choice. The investment required is grossly out of proportion with the business benefit it will bring, making it difficult to engage with the rest of the business who view IT as a cost centre rather than an enabler.



A typical IT department value-chain

Unfortunately the structure of many of our IT departments—optimised to create large IT assets—actively prohibits any other approach. More incremental or organic approaches to meeting business needs are stopped before they even get started, killed by an organisation structure and processes that impose more overhead than they can tolerate.

Applications were rare and expensive during most of enterprise IT’s history, but today they are plentiful and (comparativly) cheap. Software as a Service (SaaS) is also emerging to provide best of breed functionality but with a utillity delivery model; leveraging an externally managed service and paying per use, rather requiring capital investment in an IT asset to provide the service internally. Our focus is increasingly turned to ensuring that business processes and activities are supported with an appropriate level of technology, leveraging solutions from traditional enterprise applications through to SaaS, outsourced solutions or even bespoke elements where we see fit. We need to be focused on managing technology enablement, rather than IT assets, and many IT departments are responding to this by reorganising their operations to explore new strategies for managing IT.

Central to this new generation of IT departments is a sound understanding of how the business needs to operate—what it wants to be famous for. The old technology centric departmental roles are being deprecated, replaced with business centric roles. One strategy is to focus on Operational Excellence, Technology Enablement and Contract Management. A number of Chief Process Officer (CPO) roles are created as part of the Operational Excellence team, each focusing on optimising one or more end-to-end processes. The role is defined and measured by the business outcomes it will deliver rather than by the technology delivery process. CPOs are also integrating themselves with organisation wide business improvement and operational excellence initiatives, taking a proactive stance with the business instead of reactively waiting for the business to identify a need.



Managing technology, not applications

The Technology Enablement team works with Operational Excellence to deliver the right level of technology required to support the business. Where Operational Excellence looks out into the business to gain a better understanding of how the business functions, Technology Enablement looks out into the technology community to understand what technologies and approaches can be leveraged to create the most suitable solution. (As opposed to traditional, inward focused IT department concerned with developing and managing IT assets.) These solutions can range from SaaS through to BPO, AM (application management), custom development or traditional on-premises applications. However, the mix of solutions used will change over time as we move from today’s application centric enterprise IT to new process driven approaches. Solutions today are dominated by enterprise applications (most likely via BPO or AM), but increasingly shifting to utility models such as SaaS as these offerings mature.

Finally a contract management team is responsible for managing the contractual & financial obligations, and service level agreements between the organisation and suppliers.

One pronounced effect of a strongly business focused IT organisation is the externalisation of many asset management activities. Rather than trying to be good at everything needed to deliver a world class IT estate, and ending up beginning good at nothing, the department focuses its energies on only those activities that will have the greatest impact on the business. Other activities are supported by a broad partner ecosystem: systems integrators to install applications, outsourcers for application management and business process outsourcing, and so on. Rather than ramping up for a once-in-four-year application renewal—an infrequent task for which the department has trouble retaining expertise—the partner ecosystem ensures that the IT department has access to organisations whose core focus is installing and running applications, and have been solving this problem every year for the last four years.

This approach allows the IT department to concentrate on what really matters for the business to succeed. Its focus and expertise is firmly on the activities that will have the greatest impact on the business, while a broad partner ecosystem provides world class support for the activities that it cannot afford to develop world class expertise in. Rather than representing a cost centre in the business, the IT department can be seen as an enabler, working with other business to leverage new ideas and capabilities and drive the enterprise forward.