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The Big Picture: We've Only Just Begun To Use IT Wisely

We're in the early stages of using enterprise architecture to design better businesses

It may be a small world, but it's also very complex. Humans succeed in it thanks largely to our big brains and how we use them to develop languages, tools, and technologies. In IT, we use all kinds of models to simplify and communicate complicated things, but almost never in the context of the company as a whole or even significant parts of it. We optimize the parts and suboptimize the whole, and serve the short term at the expense of long-term goals. So problems manifest as high complexity, low quality, and waste in the form of failed projects and continuous cycles of acquire, rework, scrap, and acquire.

With IT, it's not the technology itself but how we use it. We're not really getting much bang for our IT bucks, oversimplified research and wily advertising notwithstanding. We're still in the early stages of learning how to use technology to enable the success of people and the businesses, economies, and societies that people create.

There's much precedent for this. The Industrial Revolution had its beginnings in the second half of 18th-century England, though the underpinnings of division of labor, standardized parts, and production lines can be traced to 15th-century Venice and even earlier. In 1797, American Eli Whitney pioneered standardized parts and the division of labor in manufacturing. Yet despite remarkable inventions, innovations, and ideas, nearly 120 years passed before Henry Ford combined the moving assembly line with division of labor and interchangeable parts in a way that transformed manufacturing and thereby our socioeconomic milieu.

The Information Age began just over 50 years ago. IT has made astonishing progress, and many good things have come of it. But hard evidence is scarce that all that hardware and software have contributed much to making companies more profitable or better places in which to work.

No wonder we haven't figured out how to design businesses that are aligned (i.e., those that fulfill the requirements of management) and agile. But what if we could engineer our systems, and the businesses they serve, the same way we engineer airplanes and buildings? The solution is architecture: the design, engineering, and documentation of a complex artifact so that it fulfills its purpose and facilitates coordinated activity by the specialists required to create, maintain, and operate it. Applied to companies, "doing architecture" is the engineering and manufacturing of a business that's aligned, agile, adaptable, interoperable, integrated, lean, secure, and responsive to stakeholders.

No one knows how to completely engineer and manufacture a business, but I do know that this concept implies a profound change in our thinking and communicating about companies and the technologies they use. Some businesses are making significant investments to figure this out.

Fortunately, Uncle Sam is serious about this, and some of the best enterprise architecture work is happening in Washington. You can't afford to fall too far behind, so here are some Web links to look at:

  • The Zachman Institute for Framework Advancement (http://www.zifa.com) is the home of the "godfather of EA," John Zachman, whose framework provides the foundation for the language we'll need to reap the rewards of the Information Age.

  • "The Practical Guide to Enterprise Architecture" is the Federal CIO Council's overview of what's involved and how to do it (http://www.itpolicy.gsa.gov/mke/archplus/ea_guide.doc).

  • The General Accounting Office is doing breakthrough work in formalizing and assessing enterprise-architecture practice. Its recent Enterprise Architecture Use Across The Federal Government report, GAO-02-6 (http://www.gao.gov/ new.items/d026.pdf), includes "Five Stages Of EA Maturity," and there's an excellent enterprise-architecture activities checklist in GAO-02-369T (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02369t.pdf).

  • The Department of Veteran Affairs plan exemplifies the foundations of good IT planning and governance (http://www.va.gov/oirm/architecture/EA/default.asp). The Department of Energy (cio.doe.gov/iap) and U.S. Customs Service (http://www.customs.ustreas.gov/modernization/library.htm) are other examples of enterprise-architecture leadership and innovation in Washington.

    We're still in the beginning of the Information Age; where it goes is up to us. Enterprise architecture isn't the business any more than a map is the highway or blueprints are the building. But maps, blueprints, and enterprise architecture are tools to help us efficiently and effectively get where we want to go. Without them, we're lost.

    Dr. Leon A. Kappelman is director of the IS Research Center and the Farrington Professor of IS in the College of Business Administration at the University of North Texas. You can reach him at kapp@unt.edu or on the Web at http://www.coba.unt.edu/bcis/faculty/kappelma.


    To discuss this column with other readers, please visit the Talk Shop.

    To find out more about Leon A. Kappelman, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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