by Bob Lewis

Words Enterprise Architects should only speak in whispers

Mar 24, 2011
Enterprise Applications

Attention enterprise architects: Showing how smart you are is a losing proposition

Attention enterprise architects: Showing how smart you are is a losing proposition

ManagementSpeak: It’s not about ego.

Translation: It is about ego: mine! And mine won’t suffer, yours will.

Contributing an excellent ManagementSpeak this week was not about ego. If it was, our contributor would not have asked to remain anonymous.

The subject two weeks ago: Which pays the bills, enterprise architecture or enterprise technical architecture (“Enterprise Architecture / Enterprise Technical Architecture Cage Match,” KJR, 3/7/2011).

This week’s subject: Do you talk like that in public?

It happened like this. Just to stir the pot a bit, I used the cage match column in the LinkedIn Enterprise Architecture Group (“A proposition: Enterprise Architecture gets the executive suite attention, but it’s Enterprise Technical Architecture that pays the bills.”)

The do-you-talk-like-that-in-public question is about the conversation that followed. No, there was no offensive language. Nobody swore or called anyone else a Nazi, and in fact a good discussion ensued.

What it has to do with is …


This statement, for example: “Should Enterprise Technical Architecture not align with business outcomes, then ….NO ONE IS PAYING THE BILLS.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Here’s the problem: It paints alignment as a yes-or-no proposition, giving more than a hint that without enterprise architecture to guide the way, IT’s efforts will be misaligned.

As anyone knows who has taken geometry, or, for that matter, had their cars shimmy at highway speeds after slamming into a pothole, alignment isn’t a yes-or-no proposition at all. It’s a to-what-extent proposition.

Given the extent to which IT is already embedded in most businesses, its practitioners already have plenty of knowledge about how the business is put together and where it’s headed, whether or not enterprise architects are there to guide things.

So it’s worth asking whether enterprise architecture’s impact on enterprise technical architecture is transformational or in the margins. My guess: More often than not it’s in the margins, providing far more value buttressing the executive suite sales pitch for what IT already knew than for the limited additional guidance it provides IT.

This is simply one instance of a frequent source of dysfunctional conversation. Call it the “Less Filling/Tastes Great Fallacy”: Presenting a spectrum of possibilities as two extremes with nothing in the middle.

Do you talk like this in public? I sure hope not. When two concepts represent the poles on a spectrum of possibilities, say so instead of concealing all of the good choices available.

Then there were the references to “guided evolution” — attempts to link something called “emergent architecture” to biological evolutionary theory.

Now I have no problem trying to apply biological evolutionary theory to human social systems. Quite the opposite, and in fact, there’s remarkably little difference between natural selection and capitalist economic theory, other than what constitutes “utility.”

No, my beef is inventing a brand new phrase (guided evolution) when a perfectly good phrase already exists — in this case, “artificial selection,” the evolutionary characterization of selective breeding.

It was bad enough when service bureaus became Application Service Providers (ASPs) and ASPs then became Software as a Service (SaaS) for no particular reason, and to the irritation of everyone outside the trade who was already struggling to learn our jargon.

We in IT already have a bad reputation for coining new words for the same old ideas. Let’s not make it worse.

And finally, there was this: “In philosophy ’emergence’ is not a very clear concept — — but it is obviously related to supervenience — hence my view of emergent architecture from a supervenience base of individual low-level decisions.”

I want to make this clear: I’m not ridiculing the individual who made this statement, nor am I complaining that supervenience isn’t really a word. It is … I know because I looked it up. It is, in fact, quite an important concept in analytical philosophy.

But like ontology it’s a word that should be spoken only in private, and then only in whispers.

Enterprise Architecture Departments and Enterprise Technical Architecture Departments already have reputations as academic white-paper factories staffed by individuals more interested in demonstrating their brilliance, erudition and sophistication than in providing concrete, practical business value from what they do.

Toss around terms like supervenience and ontology where business executives might overhear and they won’t conclude you’re a good thinker they ought to involve in strategic planning.

They might, briefly, wonder who has created a hybrid that incorporates the best features of the supermarket and convenience store … that would be the supervenience store … but probably not.

What’s more likely is that they’ll add your name to the one list you don’t want to be on, and that will be that.

That’s the they list — the list of people who aren’t us. It’s a bad place for an enterprise architect to be, because we are the only people who have any influence.

Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.