by Chris Potts

Enterprise Architecture: What Do You Think It Is?

Jan 08, 20093 mins
IT Leadership

An apparently open question on LinkedIn about the definition of EA turned out to be a closed one.  Shame.  It was a good question and I stayed up late to answer it. 

I enjoy openly exploring with others subjects that I care about.  “Mutual thought leadership” as one of my clients called it.  So when an apparently open question came up on LinkedIn about the value and meaning of “Enterprise Architecture”, I reprioritized my evening to offer a contribution (i.e. delayed going to bed).  Unfortunatly, I woke up this morning to find the question wasn’t open after all.

Here is the question, paraphrased as I am now going to ask it of you:

Do you think we need to have a universally agreed definition of Enterprise Architecture?   If so what do you think it should be, in one sentence, and why?

For clarity, I’m asking about the definition of EA as a discipline, rather than the definition of “an Enterprise Architecture”.

So I don’t fall into the trap that the LinkedIn questioner did, not revealing that the question was a closed one until people had started openly exploring it, here is my answer.  But I’m equally interested in yours. 

I don’t think that we need a universally agreed definition of EA.  But we do need to know what other people, especially business executives, think its two component words mean, then convey the value – in terms those people will appreciate – of putting the two words together. 

The terms “Enterprise” and “Architecture” have longstanding definitions, both in English and in disciplines such as Economics, construction and others. Re-using these definitions (re-use being a core principle of EA), seems a good place to start.

One of the issues that EA faces is that many of its spokespeople seem instead to disregard or overrule these definitions, in particular by supposing that “Enterprise” has something to do with technology or even more narrowly, IT. That does more harm to the reputation and clarity of EA than the lack of a universal definition of the value of combining these terms.  In one company I recently worked with, IT represents only 21 percent of its structural (not total) operating costs, so while IT is a material element of an enterprises’s “architecture”, making EA IT-specific seems to be missing the big picture from the start.

In my Oxford Dictionary, Enterprise is “An undertaking, especially a bold or difficult one; readiness to be involved in such undertakings”. In my pocket Economist it is “One of the Factors of Production, along with Land, Labour and Capital. The Animal Spirits of the Entrepreneur.”

Similarly, in my Dictionary, Architecture is “the art or science of designing and constructing buildings; a style of building.”

So, rather than reinvent the wheel by coming up with new definitions for EA’s component words, let’s see what happens if I re-use and combine these existing ones. Does something of value emerge? 

“The art or science of designing and constructing undertakings, especially bold or difficult ones, and of the readiness to be involved in them; the style of such undertakings.”

“Undertakings” seems a bit woolly, but in the world of business, concrete examples include an entire corporation, a strategy, a business unit, a joint venture, a program or a project. 

That does it for me.  I’d rather be doing than defining, and this definition based on re-use already offers me a huge opportunity to make a difference.   

So that is my answer to the question, what I think Enterprise Architecture is in one sentence and why. 

But what do you think?