In the future, what will be the role of the enterprise architect, the figure who maps what hardware and software a company should implement to keep itself competitive?
Obviously, a high-level architect must be close to the business goals of the company and align technology resources with them. He must also anticipate what will be needed to meet the next round of business competition. So which side of the company does he work for, the information technology staff, managing the technology, or the corporate planning staff, which so frequently expresses impatience with IT?
Forrester Research VP Gene Leganza posed an even starker question at the Enterprise Architecture Forum 2011 in San Francisco in his talk, "Enterprise Architecture In The Year 2020: Strategic Nexus or Oblivion?"
Granted, there are a number of possible messy outcomes to the enterprise architects becoming part of the business planning staff. At the same time, there is a logic driving them in that direction.
Currently only 4% of enterprise architects report to a business executive, a chief operating officer, or chief executive officer, for example, as opposed to 43% that report to the CIO and 12% that report to the CTO, Leganza said. But even that 4% is a new phenomenon. If anything, he expects it to grow much larger.
In reaching that conclusion, he is in one way continuing a theme launched by Forrester authors Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler last fall in their book "Empowered," which I reviewed. In it, they assert that business employees will need to equip themselves with the latest social networking and technology tools if they are to keep up with the company's customers. And they will do so, whether IT is prepared for it or not. In the future, new employees will show up at the company's door carrying the phone and computers they prefer to use and expect IT to support them, the authors concluded.
The empowered business staff, said Leganza, picking up the theme, will want to incorporate planning for the ongoing, technology-equipped expansion of the company under its own authority, not IT's. Leganza suggested to some extent this has already happened at firms like Aetna and United Airlines, where enterprise architects were busy integrating the technology strategy with the business strategy. "The best firms are well on their way to doing this," he said.
And the closer the enterprise architect gets to the business, the more he "owns the business planning process," he said. He had no sooner painted such a picture before he was warning, "Few firms are capable of this level of maturity."
An alternative scenario to the enterprise architect being drafted into the business management's ranks is equally possible, one in which the business executives "get better at planning themselves and relegate the EA to the role of scribe… and button pusher," he said.
In one sense, business "empowerment" reflects an increasingly tech saavy business staff and technology innovation moves into its ranks as well. A rush to cloud computing, where servers and storage are easily provisioned by end users, "blows away the central value proposition of IT" in some respects. The kind of business empowerment that Bernoff and Schadler predict, "becomes too powerful to resist," said Leganza, portraying the alternative outcome.
How could this happen? Business people at some companies are already "fed up with non-responsive, expensive IT," Leganza continued. But that outcome is also extreme and unlikely. Companies will still need application development staffs and someone to implement their work, cloud or no cloud.
A compromise outcome, given the growing importance of the enterprise architect, is for a split to occur in the role. "Business won't want to see its planners in IT. Enterprise architecture can be done from either side of the house," he noted.
Business enterprise architects could move over to the business side and technology enterprise architects could remain in IT, where they would supervise the data architecture, application design, and application operations. That role would be distinct from the business architect, who models new business processes, new customer interactions, and new outreach methods that will still need to be implemented in technology.
Such bifurcated enterprise architect roles may be common by 2020, Leganza said. "CIOs will need to consciously evolve IT's role to enable the empowered business," he added.
Soon after his talk, a questioner from among the 320 enterprise architects attending the Palace Hotel event asked Leganza, "What motivates business executives to accept help from enterprise architects?" In responding, Leganza played on the sense that most enterprise architects realize most of their fellow workers don't know what they do. "Desperation. They've already looked everywhere else," he said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Chief Enterprise Architect Ira Grossman took the stage after Leganza to say enterprise architecture is about "getting the right information to the right people at the right time."
Responding to a disaster takes many varied forms of information, and immediately re-established communication systems to make it available. In some cases, FEMA sets up its own cellular network with trucked-in towers and generators to insure the information can be gathered.
"The enterprise architect must be a leader, a visionary, and also a contrarian. If he becomes too IT centric, he will fail," Grossman warned.
In May, FEMA will test its ability to capture and move information after a mock disaster, a magnitude 7 earthquake in the populated corner of Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri. A series of four, 7+ earthquakes known as the New Madrid series hit the region two hundred years ago with a force that "moved the Mississippi River." If it occurred today, it would break gas and water lines, disrupt communications and medical services, and shake down buildings, Grossman said.
Planning for the event was disrupted recently by a few inches of wet snow falling on Montgomery County, Md., which knocked out power to 108,000 people for a week and closed roads. The FEMA staff had to halt what it was doing and help the region recover before proceeding with plans for a the mock disaster.
The disruptive nature of minor disasters should give us an indication of how hard it's going to be to cope with a real disaster, when one happens.
On the other hand, ubiquitous connectivity, an Internet that refuses to go down, and flexible, reliable systems may make it easier for the enterprise architect to design resilient systems in the future. And insist that the enterprise continue to adopt them, regardless of how well they fly with low level employee technology preferences.
If the enterprise architect is part of the business staff by 2020, then the notion of aligning IT with the business will have become more than a slogan. It will be an established fact. But there will still be a struggle to keep the technology implementation in step with the business strategy.
Even with bifurcated enterprise architects, alignment could remain a point of contention. Instead of IT and the executive staff arguing with each other, however, a more realistic channel would be in place. Perhaps in 2020 an architect on one side of the aisle will push against pressure and lobby his counterpart, while at the same time appreciating the problems on the other side and seeking a solution.
Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek.