Reaching the APEX

Describing the enterprise as a pyramid helps reveal the breadth and depth the EA function and helps define the necessary structure for an effective practice

So, if form follows function, than what exactly is the function of enterprise architecture and what form should it take?  I’ve been asked that question a few times recently and my answers have consisted of several layers, so I’d like to distill these different discussions into one answer in this post.

The function of an enterprise (both for-profit businesses and non-profit entities) is to provide value to its customers or constituents.  They organize to produce this value in the most efficient way possible, but what are the areas of the enterprise being architected?

The shape of an enterprise

I take a very holistic view of enterprise architecture, but let me introduce what I consider the shape of the enterprise.  Organizations can adopt various reporting structures, but that is not what I mean here.  When I say shape, I’m referring to the hierarchy and breadth of the components that make up the enterprise.  For me, this shape is an equilateral square pyramid.  While triangular or pyramidal representations of business strategy concepts isn’t new—many reflect human organizational structures (CEO at the top, followed by management bands, with employees at the bottom), high-level strategic concepts (e.g. strategic vision, to goals, to actions), or various other hierarchically arranged ideas—I wanted to share this enterprise architect’s mental model in three-dimensions.  Here is my just-now-titled “Pack Pyramid of EA”:

pack pyramid Ethan Pack

Pack Pyramid of EA

Let’s review, starting with the square floor at ground level.  All of the employees, customers, and constituents—the people—are the core of an enterprise.  This base is the true strength of the firm, enabling or hindering every layer that sits upon it.  The business capabilities stretch across the horizontal axis while its functions and processes stripe the vertical axis (as business capabilities are generally fulfilled by integrated processes across several organizational functions).  As business entered the information age, organizations digitized paper-based processes into the applications and technology infrastructure shown on the next level.  These systems matured and became business-critical, producing increasing volumes of data and information.  I place security next to data and information on this third tier as everything on these three levels must be secured—people, hardware and software, and data and information inputs and outputs.  Everything up to this point has pretty much represented the business-as-usual (BAU) and somewhat static enterprise.  Now, we continue up the Pack Pyramid of EA, moving from this actual view to the more aspirational one.

Programs and projects are the battlefields of change at many organizations with time, scope, and budget pulling with an ongoing, but varying, tension.  It is here where applications and infrastructure are successfully enhanced—or not.  This fourth layer affects everything beneath it.  The goal of these initiatives is to deliver on strategic objectives, so that brings us the fifth tier.  Strategy and the governance of strategic execution constrain projects and programs; the presence or absence of governance can be the difference between strategic victory or defeat.

A company’s culture, mission, vision, and values form the sixth layer—the capstone—of the Pack Pyramid of EA.  Say it aloud with me: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Culture is a constantly changing dual-state piece of the capstone: the actual culture (which can be perceived differently between executives, management, and employees) and the desired culture. 

I love the geometric elegance of the equilateral square pyramid; it is the first polyhedron in the collection of Johnson solids, labelled “J1.”  The four side faces converging at the apex is also worth noting.  In our pyramid, we consider this the Architectural Point of Effective Execution, the magical place where everything comes together for outstanding results.

EA as the all-seeing eye

So, where does the enterprise architecture practice fit in this pyramid?  Much like the Eye of Providence hovering over the thirteen tiers of an unfinished pyramid (representing the original thirteen colonies) on the back of the United States one-dollar bill, the conceptual EA practice also observes the entire organization.  EA leaders and teams have to know where the organization has been, currently is, wants to go, and does not want to go in order to craft fit-for-purpose architectural guidance.

Now, my usage of this imagery is not at all a claim of EA omnipotence, rather my intent is to assert that enterprise architects are (or should be) responsible for the well-being of the entire technology-enabled enterprise “shape” as it evolves over time.  Enterprise architects are merely stewards of the enterprise landscape.  Everyone in the organization should have a bit of this broad view within them.  Much like William Arruda writes in his Forbes.com post, Why Your Team Needs to Focus on the Forest and the Trees, I believe that improvements such as increased strategic understanding and buy-in, more efficient business operations, improved customer satisfaction, and better financial performance would result from more “forest thinking” alongside the day-to-day whirlwind within our firms. 

In the platform-heavy digital economy, the ‘e’ in enterprise architecture continues evolving into ecosystem.  Enterprise architects must look outward, beyond the four walls of the enterprise, and explore the broader industry, political, economic, and societal trends which continually reshape the playing field.  This broad view helps organizations identify potential innovation opportunities while enabling a smoother transition from a great “concept car" to a production-ready “vehicle” with the necessary security, scale, and sustainability.

Build bridges

Accepting the broader and deeper charter for the enterprise architecture practice, we now address the organization structure of this future-ready EA organization.

First, we can better see why EA must report to an executive who is accountable for enterprise-wide concerns.  The head of enterprise architecture (or chief architect) directly reporting to the chief executive officer (CEO) may be the panacea, but the chief operating officer (COO), chief information officer (CIO), or chief financial officer (CFO) are logical fits, each offering various pros and cons.  One caution on EA reporting into the CIO: this could hinder true enterprise-wide efficacy due to employees’ perception and/or the CIO’s priorities and focus—especially if she is always fighting day-to-day fires or doesn’t embrace the business leader demands of the role in the digital age.  To insulate architecture and strategy from the day-to-day operational noise that dampens successful change, EA could be included as part of a multifunctional strategic planning organization reporting to one of these executives.

Next, project management is a similar “not really business, not really IT” function.  For that reason and the specific duty of executing enterprise initiatives, EA and PMO should be a shared organization, reporting into the same strategic planning concept.  In this model, EA, PMO, and finance leaders can help define a proper approach to budgeting, resource allocation, and other areas of agile financial management.  This sort of treatment can help organizations move from a one-time budgeting process into a much more adaptive planning posture.

Third, the EA governance model must be a part of the larger corporate governance structure.  It needs to feature a continuous feedback loop to and from executive teams, boards of directors, and business leaders.  This allows for more rapid responses to shifts in strategy and mitigates against details getting lost in translation.  The EA team must collaborate with business unit leaders to shape the roadmap and prioritize and manage demand.  Architects should continue seeking a deeper understanding of their organizations’ value streams and business processes.  Agile execution can carry the risk of developing solutions with little or no reusability, proving costlier and more difficult to maintain in the long run, so the technology architecture needs appropriate definitions of standards and change control.

Fourth, the enterprise architecture team needs to have both a “core team” consisting of full-time architects and an “extended team” consisting of business and technology stakeholders throughout the organization.  The core team can mind the “architectural library” and tactics while the extended team helps to spread EA’s relevancy, influence, and adherence. 

Finally, communication is critical in earning—and maintaining—an enterprise-wide scope and employee support.  In addition to the enterprise architect as “city planner” metaphor, I’ve found Gartner’s messaging of the enterprise architect as an “internal management consultant” to be another very effective way to help co-workers, colleagues, and the public understand the practice. 

So, the enterprise architecture function helps lead change, organizes and connects people and technology within and around the organization, and pulls everything together to connect at a single point—the organizational “North Star.”  This function requires a very collaborative structure with enterprise-wide authority and support.  It also calls for more involvement from non-architects to maintain the great pyramid within one’s enterprise.

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