Experts: Keep improving architectures

Perfecting agency enterprise architectures is a challenge for many agencies, but experts suggest if officials take on the task as something more than a paper exercise, it can be an essential management tool.

Examining the challenging criteria and borrowing lessons from agencies with more mature enterprise architectures can help guide officials' focus for improvement.

Many of the 96 architectures evaluated by the latest version of the General Accounting Office's Enterprise Architecture Management Maturity Framework rated at stage one or stage two on the five-stage scale. In fact, only the Executive Office of the President reached the top maturity stage. But seven agencies are a few criteria away from stage five, GAO officials said.

By closely examining the criteria to achieve higher stages, agency officials can see where they hit snags, such as lacking formal methodologies and developing relevant metrics, and begin to focus agency resources.

"Agencies can look at how they stack up when an assessment is done, and they can look and see where they have not met a particular element of the framework," said Mark Bird, an assistant director for information technology at GAO. "That would indicate where they should focus their attention next."

There was no single element that agencies struggled with most consistently, Bird said, but the scores do indicate a few sticking points. For example, when trying to reach the second stage of maturity, 41 percent of the agencies satisfied the requirement that the architecture is developed using a methodology and an automated tool, officials said. Additionally, 58 percent had a program office in place that was responsible for developing and maintaining the architecture. Agencies could not pass to the next stage without meeting these criteria.

"Developing and using an enterprise architecture is not an insignificant activity, and it requires really the adoption of a program management mentality," Bird said. "It's an activity to be formally managed to which dedicated resources should be

applied."

Similarly, only 34 percent of the agencies were able to measure and report the progress of architecture plans, one of the criteria necessary to advance to stage three. The development of metrics seems to be an obstacle for many agency officials, experts said.

"It's hard because it's new," Bird said. "Not many organizations have actually done it yet."

Despite what appears to be a gloomy architecture picture, several agencies are showing significant progress, Bird said. One such agency is the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where officials started the enterprise architecture program about three years ago when agency officials published a report describing how their systems had been working. This conceptual business model helped guide the agency's business and information technology components, said HUD's chief architect Dick Burk.

Support from the agency's business owners has been important to the program's success, said Burk, who came to the position from one of the agency's program areas. "I bring an ability to translate what enterprise architecture and IT means to HUD's lines of business," he said. "I think that capability is extremely helpful."

Aligning the business processes and the IT posed a challenge for HUD officials, Burk said, and identifying the purpose and benefits of the architecture helped make that connection. To reach that final stage of maturity, HUD officials are, among other activities, establishing an architecture review board to bring the business side and the IT side together. The group will "hash through a lot of these issues," he said. Burk estimated that HUD was about six months away from reaching stage five.

Officials at the Internal Revenue Service also wrestled with coordinating business and technology, said Daniel Horsey, the IRS' director of enterprise architecture. Program managers often want to build a system into the architecture rather than using the architecture to guide the system implementation.

"We really believe the proper way to do it is to start with the business pieces," Horsey said. "If a system piece is missing, it means there is something in the business you have missed. We have to resist the urge to just throw things in there willy-nilly. We not only have to push back on users and developers, but it also takes a lot of internal discipline."

IRS officials also explained to agency officials and stakeholders how the architecture works, what new elements are coming and how managers can use it to guide system development. "There's a lot of consulting and hand-holding with projects to make sure they understand" the architectures, Horsey said. "We are trying to help them comply without standing on the sidelines saying, 'You will comply.'"

The IRS is also only a few elements away from stage-five maturity, and developing metrics was a roadblock to the agency's maturity. Officials have turned their focus in the past year to creating metrics, which Horsey said hasn't been happening enough in the private sector.

"We have had a really hard time finding folks who have actually done it," he said. "We've really decided this is something we have to do internally from the ground up. It's us who really understands our organization."

Developing metrics may not be as hard as it seems, said Mike Tiemann, a principal in AT&T Government Solutions' enterprise architecture practice. But many officials in the private sector have been unable to fully explain to agency officials how to develop metrics, he said.

There are two areas that are affected by the architecture: direct benefits derived from using a reference model in the architecture and indirect efficiencies gained through using the architecture to guide collaboration.

"If you figure out a cost model on how you add those things up and attribute those to the architecture, you rapidly will form a cost-based metric," said Tiemann, who led the team that created the federal enterprise architecture before he left government. "Nobody has really gone about articulating this."

Debra Stouffer, vice president of strategic consulting services at DigitalNet LLC, said despite the struggles, agencies are making progress. The early effort of gathering knowledgeable employees and relevant data took some time but will pay off once agencies use the architecture to drive investments.

"I certainly think we are moving forward," she said. "There is a lot of work that has to be done initially to develop an enterprise architecture. The tough part comes when you try to not only put a lot of data into repository but then actually begin to build processes to use that data that informs decision-making."

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