What we've got here is failure to communicate ...

At EA 2014, enterprise architects from across government grappled with the challenge of getting outsiders to understand what they do.

Shutterstock image: wall of gears.

"Dead on arrival."

"Ivory tower ideas."

"Shelfware."

Again and again at EA 2014 -- an annual conference on enterprise architecture that is now in its 12th year -- speakers and attendees alike focused not on the nuts and bolts of their craft, but on the more fundamental challenge of getting others in government to understand and value what they do.

Part of the problem, of course, is that enterprise architects are trying to bring structure and consistency to the messy hodgepodge that is agency operations. That's a goal shared by many an agency CIO (to whom the chief architect often reports), but there are lots of agency stakeholders who like their little corner as it is.

"People are comfortable with their own turf," one attendee noted during a session, "and they're not interested in the enterprise perspective."

Another attendee, who asked for anonymity because he had not been cleared to speak at the conference, which was sponsored by 1105 Media, called it the "battle of the best practices."

"To a point," he said, "differentiation is understandable and necessary, but collaboration is more important."

Yet Chris Chilbert, the Department of Homeland Security's chief architect, was sympathetic to the skeptics. The charges that EA can put concept and structure above on-the-ground realities is sometimes valid he said. And "we aren't the ones getting that call at 2 in the morning because some system has gone down."

Additionally, Chilbert noted, EA was once the hot trend in IT, but has long since been replaced by DevOps, big data, agile development and other buzzwords. "If EA is no longer that hot new thing," he asked, "how do you then get in front of folks? How do you make that relevant to what they do?"

Helen Schmitz, the chief architect for DHS's Information Sharing Environment Office, echoed Chilbert. An enterprise-wide architecture can't be the end goal in and of itself, she said. "The desired state is to provide tools that are used every day. ... It's about enabling things to happen."

Schmitz, who has worked at agencies large and small -- she was the National Institutes of Health's enterprise architect for seven years before coming to DHS in 2012 -- stressed that she was speaking for herself and not either agency, but said she'd settled on several key steps for making sure EA doesn't produce yet more shelfware. 

Always "deliver with a purpose or an end in mind, to fill a need," she said. "Deliver quickly, and limit scope." And "follow through. Don't just design it -- make it happen."

Schmitz also stressed that "there is power in developing a vision," and that graphics can help key stakeholders understand that broader context. But, she stressed, "it has to be more than pretty pictures."

Nitin Naik, the Internal Revenue Service's technical director for strategic planning and technical direction, said that the key at his agency had been getting architects, key stakeholders, end users and developers all talking. By bridging the gap between high-level planning and program-level development, Naik said, the IRS's most recent EA initiatives have minimized the risk of program failure, identified "commonalities in IT capabilities across lines of business" and promoted "common services to support those capabilities."

Naik also noted that placing responsibility for requirements and engineering "into the same group that develops and sustains the EA” had gone a long way toward avoiding the ivory tower problem.

The consensus, however, was that examples like Naik's are still too few and far between. As another attendee put it during Chilbert's presentation, "the biggest problem is that we as architects fail to articulate the value of EA within the organization. We keep trying to explain what EA is, when what we should probably be doing is explaining ... what we can do for you."

NEXT STORY: Twitter's soft power

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