Enterprise architects talk the business talk

EA glossary

Enterprise architecture: A set of documents that collectively defines an organization’s approach to acquiring, implementing and managing information technology in a way that supports the organization’s present and future business/mission needs.

Federal enterprise architecture: A set of reference models and other guidance that the Office of Management and Budget maintains for agencies to use in developing their own architectures.

Governance: A set of procedures that delineate the roles of organizations and individuals in developing and maintaining a project or program.

Segment architecture: A smaller version of an enterprise architecture developed around a single project or program.

The term enterprise architecture is mysterious to many people, especially those who work in agency business offices rather than information technology departments.

Although enterprise architecture has been part of IT planning efforts since it was mandated by the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, for many years it was just IT arcana that few outsiders knew much about.
However, that trend has been changing in recent years, and IT and business executives alike are learning how to communicate better. IT leaders are coming to improve understanding of their agencies’ missions, and business executives are gaining appreciation for the value of architecture in meeting mission objectives.

Easier collaboration is becoming more common as enterprise architecture matures, which is a result of deliberate nurturing rather than an incidental byproduct, according to a range of people involved in various aspects of the discipline.

Technology professionals are learning to talk about enterprise architecture in terms of how it improves business functions, and that’s getting the attention of the agency’s business leaders. At the same time, executives charged with fulfilling agency missions are becoming less skeptical of the value of architecture, and they’re more willing to listen.

The emerging mentality is to see enterprise architecture as an overall planning and management tool and not strictly as a technology project.

For years, many agencies created enterprise architectures to meet statutory requirements and pass muster with the Office of Management and Budget, said Peter Bayer, senior manager of enterprise architecture and data strategy at BearingPoint. The models had little utility beyond fulfilling a compliance objective. Consequently, the documents ended up gathering dust.

“But it costs a lot of money and takes effort to do this stuff,” Bayer said, so agency leaders increasingly want to get value from it. “Based on the requests for proposals and solicitations we’ve seen come out, there are very few agencies that are asking for an architecture just for compliance.”

Although agencies want the architecture to fulfill business needs, they don’t always know how to make that happen, Bayer said. “They’re still wrestling with what’s the right way to tackle that. They’re saying, ‘Help us figure that out.’ ”

OMB has helped by creating the federal enterprise architecture as a reference and publishing supporting documents. However, individual efforts remain unique, and problems arise that agency leaders must solve on their own.

Architectures of the past often became shelfware, but that happens less often today, said Andy Blumenthal, director of enterprise architecture and IT governance at the Coast Guard.

“We need to make this something that the executive decision-maker can use to pinpoint where the decision points are and make decisions off of it,” he said.

IRS insists on collaboration
The Internal Revenue Service was an early leader in the growing wave. Busy with three major modernization efforts, IRS leaders were quick to understand the need to have the business and IT sides talking with each other. In 2006, the agency created the Business Modernization Office to oversee the projects.

“We felt we needed a stronger business process in the day-to-day activities of the major modernization projects,” said Dave Medeck, an IRS business modernization executive. As head of the office, which includes more than 100 employees, he’s been coordinating the efforts.

“One of the things I’ve observed that I think has made a tremendous difference is that we’ve engaged the technology folks, the engineering and architecture folks, pretty much from Day One,” he said. “They are key members of the teams we have in p lace.”

IRS uses meticulous governance processes to keep projects from veering off track, Medeck said. When a project is ready to start, his office assigns an executive steering committee made up of 10 to 15 executives representing all the disciplines involved. The team gets periodic progress reports — monthly for large projects and closer to quarterly for small ones — and is able to identify problems early on, he said. “It’s a process that works very well and further cements the business and IT relationship.”

The key success factor is frequent and clear communication, he said. “That’s not to say we don’t [still] have miscommunications from time to time. The difference is that since we’re talking earlier and more often, the miscommunications that do occur are much more readily identified and corrected.”

Even agencies without the kind of structure that IRS has put into place can improve communications between business and IT offices, Medeck said.

“You need to provide your staff folks clear direction about how critical that open and honest communication is,” he said. “Part of being open and honest is not letting issues fester but getting after them very quickly as soon as you discover something you don’t understand or that seems to be contrary to a previously agreed-upon position.”

Smaller agencies sometimes have an advantage in that business executives have multiple roles, said Scott Bernard, deputy chief information officer at the Federal Railroad Administration, a component of the Transportation Department. The agency’s CIO is also the chief financial officer, head of human resources and head of acquisition.

“Some of the historical fights — like between the CFO and CIO — we can sidestep that,” Bernard said. “The leadership team really gets along.”

Prepping the message
IT professionals have historically had poor access to agency business leaders. The people involved in running the agency have their hands full carrying out the agency’s mission and won’t make much time for esoteric discussions about IT principles, said Diane Reeves, chief business architect at the Interior Department.

“We’ve got to stop introducing the topic of ‘enterprise architecture,’ ” Bayer said. “Enterprise architecture is an approach, a methodology to help someone solve a problem. Cast the conversation around identifying their problems and finding ways to solve them.”

Results matter too, Blumenthal said. After IT professionals convince business leaders that enterprise architecture — whether identified by that term or not — is worth spending time on, proving it becomes important. 

Technical terminology is often the problem, said Tony Pagliaro, a managing director at BearingPoint. The benefits of enterprise architecture can and should be articulated in plain, nontechnical language, he said.

“We think this process has been made more complicated than it needs to be,” he said. “We’ve been spending a lot of time deprogramming people.”

John Fitzpatrick, an enterprise architect at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also emphasized that point. “The architecture needs to be business-driven,” he said. “We’ve got to start at the top and drill down from there. You don’t get to the data, service, facilities, staffing and so on until later, or you’re kidding yourself. It can’t be technology-driven if you hope to succeed.”

An ideal enterprise architecture effort starts with a business function analysis to identify what the existing architecture already covers, where the gaps are and what needs updating, Fitzpatrick said. Only then are planners in a position to design an effectiv target architecture and develop a transition strategy to move to it.

Fitzpatrick said thinking of enterprise architecture as an IT effort is central to the communications problems. “When people ask me to describe enterprise architecture, I often will start by saying it’s a planning and management discipline,” he said. “It takes time for people to understand that enterprise architecture is not [computer] systems architecture.”

Good governance leads to good government
Systematic controls create better dialog between the two sides of the agency and lead to tangible results faster, experienced IT professionals and agency executives say.

“IT governance is getting more sophisticated as well, just as EA is evolving,” said Beverly Hacker, former chief architect at the Treasury Department and now principal enterprise architect at Citizant. “I think the whole notion of how EA gets integrated with capital planning and life cycle management is very key to finding the way forward. My experience is that [the governance model] is very agency-specific.”

There are some common principles that are always smart, Hacker said, even though the full governance model needs to be unique to the agency. IT professionals should strive to understand what their agency business leaders see as value and try to deliver it, solving the most important business problems.

Governance should also be built around the idea of iteration of segments, she said. “You’re always coming in in the middle of something” while other segments are launching at the same time still others are concluding.

“Governance is going to be key to this whole process,” said Michael Dunham, former Treasury chief architect and now senior principal consultant at Keane. “You’re ceding control of major operations to an outside entity. We’ve really got to think about how we’re going to manage that process.” 

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