by Kim S. Nash

The Case for Enterprise Architects

Dec 23, 200810 mins
IT Leadership

The EA is key to aligning business and IT. In tough times, this hard-to-define position is more important than ever.

When technology infrastructure lines up with business projects like musicians in a marching band, you know you have a good enterprise architect on staff. But will you keep him when it’s time to start handing out pink slips?

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You will if you can make the case for this hard-to-define but critical IT position. An enterprise architect, or team of them, creates a model—usually with graphical software, but paper will do—of how your company works. That includes the business processes and the related technology as well as a common vocabulary for IT and non-IT people to use to discuss operations. The goal is a little thing called alignment.

The essence of the job “is about improving communication between the people with the problems and those who would solve them,” says Leon Kappelman, cochair of the Society for Information Management’s enterprise architect working group. “That’s vital.”

Believers such as Scottrade CIO Ian Patterson use the enterprise architect (EA) position in part to bring the IT group close to the internal customer. At the $1 billion brokerage, CEO Rodger Riney recently suggested to Patterson to send some EAs to User Summits with customers—people who trade stock online—to learn directly what services they want, Patterson says. “They get firsthand knowledge of what customers are saying” to translate into IT projects, he explains.

Achieving that impressive lockstep between business and IT takes time and practice, of course. The job of an enterprise architect is hard to master and sometimes hard to nail down.

Now, amid an economic downturn, a position like that—without concrete and measurable financial value or, typically, any direct reports—can be difficult to justify when the board of directors demands companywide layoffs. Yet don’t let those obstacles induce you to cut the enterprise architecture job automatically when you must reduce staff, experts warn. You could dig your company a bigger hole. The EA is key to aligning business and IT, which in these recessionary times is more important than ever.

No Universal Job Description

So what does an EA do? The answer depends on who you talk to.

At some companies, the position emphasizes technology, as in the planning of companywide systems. A core objective, for example, is to ensure that all new software and hardware meet standards and work together.

However, a CIO makes better use of an enterprise architect by having him or her focus on the technical viability of product solutions while determining their economic value to the business, says Ken Zivic, a consultant at Forsythe, a technology advisory firm. This will result in an improved IT ability to make better business decisions while considering benefits, risk and the effects of new technology implementation, he says. “There are so many vendors pulling and tugging on IT organizations. EAs have to be a shield for that,” he says. “A voice of reason.”

Not only that, but an enterprise architect must be a voice that many kinds of people can understand, says Tim Ferrarell, CIO and senior vice president of enterprise systems at W.W. Grainger, a $6.4 billion distributor of heavy equipment.

Ideally, Ferrarell says, this person “can think at a strategic level and all the way down to the operating level and understand how to move up and down that chain of abstraction,” he says. “And know how to deal with conflicts and trade-offs.”

Gee, is that all? Actually, no. That person also has to gain the confidence of the senior leadership team, he says. Execs must believe that the enterprise architect comprehends how the company works, where it wants to go and how technology helps or hinders, he says. Then effective working relationships can bloom.

In 2006, Grainger went live with a companywide SAP project—20 SAP modules and 30 additional applications that would touch 425 locations. To help guard against what could go wrong in a big-bang cutover, Ferrarell took his team of about 20 enterprise architects off their regular jobs and assigned them to design and integration roles on the SAP project. The SAP implementation was such an all-encompassing program that it made sense to re-purpose the enterprise architects into key roles in the project. Their broad business and technical knowledge made them very valuable team members, says Ferrarell.

Grainger’s senior business-side managers knew these architects and their business savvy firsthand, he explains. The trust was there, which helped get IT the intense cooperation needed during and after the complicated launch. Their architects played a significant role, not only in shaping the need for completion of the ERP project, but in ensuring its design would enable their business requirements. The SAP project succeeded, Ferrarell says, in part due to the institutional knowledge and business-IT translation skills the EAs brought to it.

Now that the SAP implementation is stable and perking along, Ferrarell is putting the architecture group back together. One of the first tasks for the team is to help business groups identify what new services they want to offer customers and scope out what the IT requirements would be, he says. The job of their architects is to align business strategy, operational model design and systems design to help support Grainger’s multi-channel strategy, he adds.

Ferrarell hires enterprise architects from outside Grainger, but the best usually come from within because they have institutional knowledge, he says. Despite the bad economy, he’s filling these jobs. “This is an absolutely pivotal position.”

Where to Start

Other companies, though, have to be convinced of the enterprise architect’s criticality. Sony Pictures Entertainment launched an enterprise architect role modestly in 2002, focused at first on technology issues only, says David Buckholtz, vice president of planning, enterprise architecture and quality at the media company.

He had to start small: Sony Pictures Entertainment didn’t even have a corporate-wide IT department until the late 1990s, Buckholtz says. The company grew from acquisitions and other deals that parent company Sony Corp. of America made in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the acquisition of Columbia TriStar movie studio (The Karate Kid and Ghost Busters) and the acquisition of Merv Griffin Enterprises (Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy).

“We’re in a creative industry and people made a lot of decisions on their own,” he says. Hence, no central IT until relatively recently and no strong belief in the importance of central IT, he says.

Buckholtz was hired from General Electric to start an enterprise architecture team because Sony Pictures wanted more efficiency and savings from IT, he says. At first, he concentrated on classifying existing and future technology investments. Categories include technologies in development where Sony is doing proofs of concept; technologies in pilot; current and supported; supported but older versions; those headed to retirement; and those that are obsolete and no longer supported except “under extreme duress,” Buckholtz says, laughing.

He began this way to demonstrate that IT could be businesslike: investing well, conscious of risk, planning for the future. “This is how you plan enterprise architecture when you don’t have business support yet. We had to build up to that.”

Once the architecture group has the enterprise IT house under control, it can look for ways to work with different business technology groups to build credibility beyond bits and bytes, he says. One technique Buckholtz used was to install architects in different business groups to work on projects on business turf but using IT’s budget. A free trial, in a sense.

By 2005, Buckholtz’s group had started a high-profile project with the digital media team to map out how Sony Pictures would digitize content for downloading to mobile phones and other devices. He counts it as a success that the digital media group continues to use that road map today. “We identified high-value work and we were all committed to it,” he says. “It was not a group off somewhere, passing down standards.”

As the economy tightens, Sony Pictures must make its distribution chain as efficient as possible, he adds. Movies, after all, are a discretionary expense for consumers and if they pull back on luxuries, Sony Pictures will feel it. EAs continuously reinforce to business-side counterparts the expected returns on IT projects as the temptation to cut spending grows. “We make sure we close the loop and quantify hard-dollar costs and benefits for the CFO,” Buckholtz says.

No Decrees from On High

To be successful, an enterprise architect must not only connect with senior business managers but with the rank-and-file IT staff as well.

Being perceived as imperious can sabotage enterprise architects, according to Ryan Plant, himself an enterprise architect at Interbank FX, which makes technology for trading foreign currency online.

In smaller or midsize companies, the enterprise architect is typically one of the highest-paid IT professionals, which can cause some friction among employees. And usually the EA works closely with the CIO—an influential place to be.

An enterprise architect has to guard against getting too far removed to the management echelons and losing touch—and influence—with the technologists who design and code systems, Plant says. In other words, as much as an architect must build relationships with those outside IT, he also must maintain good relations with those inside IT who can make business plans into technology realities.

To keep those connections, he advises, architects might consider hosting brown-bag lunches and inviting application coders, designers and integrators to talk about a topic of their choosing. The architect can present on it and lead a discussion afterwards.

“You’re showing people that you’re thinking about things within the context of what they’re working on and you’re thinking in terms of how they work every day,” he says. “It’s an education session and it’s a marketing tactic.”

People go back to work thinking they’ve learned something and can approach the architect in the future, he adds.

Tick-off programmers by handing down standards via e-mail and a rap of an invisible gavel, and standards will be circumvented, Plant says. “Without the ability to execute, architects are going to constantly struggle with justifying their existence.”

A Path to CIO

YRC Worldwide has formal enterprise architects on staff. The higher up anyone climbs in CIO Michael Rapken’s IT group, the greater percentage of time is expected to be spent on what he calls “account management” with business colleagues, which are largely EA skills. They include assessing and planning potential projects together with business departments, making sure technology standards are met and business conditions satisfied.

His team is rated each year on how well they build relationships with business counterparts, among other things, through an annual internal customer satisfaction survey IT hands out to the rest of the $9.6 billion transportation company. But evaluation also comes through personal feedback. “You can tell who’s being a success by whether I hear compliments about them,” he says.

Score one if in the enterprise architect you recognize the makings of a good CIO. It’s a reasonable hypothesis, says SIM’s Kappelman. In a small or medium-sized company, in fact, the CIO often does much of what an enterprise architect usually does at a large firm. In a big company, the enterprise architect becomes its own career path, and one that can be just as strategic as a CIO’s, Kappelman says.

One often-discussed vision of the future of the CIO profession has the technology caretaker part of the job being outsourced entirely, with the strategy parts remaining. If that happens, Kappelman says, “the CIO becomes the ultimate enterprise architect.”