One of the overarching themes in the history of business IT has been the movement of technological control away from the centre of the organisation. It happened in the 1980s, as the personal computer superseded the mainframe and the minicomputer, and now it is happening again.
Mobile devices, for example, are becoming an increasingly important component of business infrastructure, but a component that is at the mercy of the user. Meanwhile, cloud-based IT services are allowing departmental managers to procure applications and infrastructure without involving the IT department.
The recent expression of this trend has coincided with budgetary pressure that makes enterprise-wide IT projects difficult to justify. Together, these factors could be seen as a threat to enterprise architecture, the practice of mapping technology design and investment to the organisation’s functional structure and its strategic direction.
Certainly, enthusiasm for EA is not what it once was. “EA [has] slipped into the Trough of Disillusionment,” wrote Gartner analyst Philip Allega in August 2010, referring to its position on the IT advisory’s Hype Cycle. The reason, Allega said, was that “EA practitioners couldn’t or wouldn’t push EA efforts to become integrated with the business, drawing an invisible wall between the business and IT”. This is a damning indictment of a strategy whose purpose has always been to bring business and IT into alignment.
That said, Gartner’s EA Hype Cycle also found that technology-driven approaches, while perhaps failing to bring down the barriers between IT and the business, were nevertheless moving into what it calls “the Plateau of Productivity”.
Service-oriented architecture is a good example. In its heyday, SOA was touted as an almost philosophical approach to IT management. More truthfully, it is a software design principle that transferred some of the benefits of web-based systems to enterprise infrastructure.
SOA, it seems, is now clear of Gartner’s Trough of Disillusionment. It is certainly being adopted – a Forrester Research survey of financial services companies from around the globe, meanwhile, found that the “vast majority” use SOA today and that “many” plan to extend their use of the technology. And it is being found effective – of all the strategies assessed in the Effective IT Survey, SOA was ranked the 11th most effective, up from 22nd last year. So having once been dismissed as too technological in its focus, SOA seems to be proving useful.
Indeed, many organisations are applying EA to achieve their strategic aims, such as the BBC, which set up an ‘Architecture Council’ in 2009. The council’s chairman, Rhys Lewis, told Information Age in 2010 that by asserting metadata standards for media files, the BBC hopes to ease the flow of those files between divisions and suppliers, making it a more collaborative organisation. (This example demonstrates how the proliferation of devices and platforms makes EA more important).
Perhaps the reason why EA in general is languishing in the Trough of Disillusionment is the frustrated expectation that it might resolve the division between business and IT once and for all.
Gartner’s Allega believes that the practice still has the potential to achieve this. “As IT roles shift away from technology management to enterprise management, EA is suited to bring clarity to these blurred boundaries,” he writes. “By 2015, increased adoption of EA processes and uses by business will further IT’s alignment with the organisation’s culture, future-state vision and delivery of business value outcomes.”
This is certainly a worthy cause, but it might be worth bearing in mind that it is the more technology-focused approaches to EA that seem to have so far proven their worth, albeit in achieving less ambitious goals.