The farmer and the cowherd, the innovator and the enterprise architect should be friends

A couple of recent articles got me thinking about the relationship between innovation and enterprise architecture in the digital business age.

At first glance, the two areas may seem as closely related as a unicorn and a public library.

However, Chris Barianuk’s BBC News piece “Blockchain: The Revolution that hasn’t quite happened” and Gerben Wierda’s Linkedin article “Blame the Mathematicians” led me to the conclusion that it might be good for enterprise architects to think a bit more like innovators and for innovators to consider architecture a bit.

Chris Barianuk’s article suggests that Blockchain may have passed the Gartner Hype Cycle ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and be heading into the ‘trough of disillusionment’, with the glitter of its early promise somewhat tarnished by association with the underachieving world of cryptocurrency.

On the enterprise architecture front, Gerben Wierda argues that it’s as essential for a digital enterprise to pay attention to the elements which make an IT function performant as it is to the function itself.

To nip any potential lawsuits in the bud (hopefully), I’m not suggesting here that Blockchain is anything less than beautifully architected, at least, not in our traditional definition of the word.

On the other hand, I do believe that the challenges of a digital business world should lead us to take a broader perspective of the role of enterprise architecture, and that applying some basic architecture principles to innovations like Blockchain can help maximise return on investment in them.

My enterprise architecture 101 training taught me that enterprise architecture basically consists of a vision of where the enterprise should be in terms of its business goals, a snapshot of where it is now, and a tracked road map for taking you from where you are now to the vision.

Historically, enterprise architecture has been pretty requirements led and intra-enterprise. Certainly, in my day, it was about wrangling a core of enterprise data, processes and applications, with innovation mostly confined to the technology stack.

Innovation itself tends to be more solution driven and often comes from outside the enterprise, as disruptors come up with new, better ways to tackle a business problem or opportunity.

The landscape in which enterprise architecture operates has changed almost out of all recognition since I was actively involved during the early noughties.

Then, the data, process and application artefacts involved were either built or bought by the enterprise, and there was a pretty clear boundary between the enterprise estate and the outside world.

In our digital business world, the technology has become an integral part of the business, and more and more of the data, process and application assets which add value to the enterprise are no longer bounded or controlled by the business itself.

Our enterprise architectures operate within a wider ‘super architecture’ of Internet, Cloud, IoT, big data and social media which the enterprise does not control.

This creates opportunities as well as challenges for enterprise architecture. It enables a more holistic, technology inclusive approach, making the most of the rich capabilities of the digital ‘super architecture’, fostering innovation as an inherent part of the process.

And it flows both ways.

I believe that one of the challenges for innovations like Blockchain is that no-one owns the digital ‘super architecture’. There is no chief architect out there setting the vision and seeking funding from a CIO to deliver critical enablers to achieving that end state.

An innovation like Blockchain won’t succeed just because people recognise that a distributed ledger is a pretty vital component of a future state of the ‘super architecture’. It has to succeed in its own terms by finding that first, precious killer app and growing from there.

The challenge is that innovation tends, understandably, to focus on that first killer app because that’s what justifies the investment, rather than thinking about the road map required to establish it as a core component of the ‘super architecture’.

Taking more proactive steps to identify and plan what comes after that first killer app might leave fewer innovations floundering.

Taking a more architectural perspective in innovation won’t solve this by itself, because the practical challenges are still pretty chunky.

On the other hand, even recognising that hitching Blockchain to the Bitcoin wagon might be risky from an architectural perspective might lead to better strategies to make this kind of innovation stick, and create a better return on investment in the long term.

So maybe a more symbiotic relationship between enterprise architecture and innovation could do them both some good.

I realise that it’s been a while since I was involved in architecture for an actual enterprise, so all of this may be old hat, or at best just hopelessly wide of the mark. If it is, or if you have any other thoughts, please do chip in.

And if you’re wondering what farmers and cowherds have to do with enterprise architecture, the answer is nothing, sorry – please indulge this poor Rogers and Hammerstein fan.

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