Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Effective Enterprise Architecture Capitalizes on Emergence

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It's been interesting to observe the response to Gartner's recent discussion of a "new" approach to Enterprise Architecture. In the press release titled "Gartner Identifies New Approach for Enterprise Architecture," the analysts assert that Enterprise Architects must "respond to the growing variety and complexity in markets, economies, nations, networks and companies" by adopting a "new style of enterprise architecture" called "emergent architecture." And they describe seven properties that differentiate this "new" style from what they refer to as "the traditional approach to EA." While I find it curious that Gartner considers this a new approach, the analysts' guidance is sound and reflects the "state of the art" in EA leadership. In fact, it's the only style I've personally seen to be effective at all. Essentially, your EA practice should encourage the creation of an empowered organization capable of adaptive and goal-seeking behavior that maximizes effectiveness along the front lines of the business.

In this light, let's take a look at each of their seven properties of "emergent architecture."

1. Non-deterministic - In the past, enterprise architects applied centralized decision-making to design outcomes. Using emergent architecture, they instead must decentralize decision-making to enable innovation.

I've heard about this "deterministic" EA practice. And I've also heard about unicorns. Every effective EA practice I've seen recognized its role as one of leadership - and context. One of the biggest drivers in business today is Agility - the need to respond rapidly to changing needs and opportunities. By definition, then, we are operating in a climate where the future is not pre-determined or predicted. As such, at some scale, the specific outcomes are obviously non-deterministic. But there's a huge risk of this property being abused (see Agile Is Not "Make It Up As You Go"). As a whole, any organization with an EA practice absolutely has some destination in mind... some target. It's our job to create context and to provide leadership that helps the organization translate that target into actionable goals... and to adapt its way to success.

2. Autonomous actors - Enterprise architects can no longer control all aspects of architecture as they once did. They must now recognise the broader business ecosystem and devolve control to constituents.

Again, the idea that an Enterprise Architect could ever "control all aspects of architecture" is a farce. The power of an organization always lies with those that are serving the organizations clients - the business units. Our role in EA is to serve those people on the front line and empower them to better meet the needs of their customers - and at the same time advance the organization as a whole towards its targets. This is a role of leadership - not control - and I wrote about it in Leadership - The Secret Sauce. Emphasizing the value of "collective intelligence," that post reminds us that we can "achieve outrageous levels of performance by harnessing the intellect and energy of the people." This also came up in Nurture The Freaks where we contemplated these words from Gary Hamel, "Going forward, no company will be able to afford to waste a single iota of human imagination and intellectual power."

3. Rule-bound actors - Where in the past enterprise architects provided detailed design specifications for all aspects of the EA, they must now define a minimal set of rules and enable choice.

It's a reasonably well accepted principle that an EA practice should never make a decision (or set a constraint) that could be left to the business unit or development team. In fact, enabling choice and encouraging participation are important vehicles for gaining buy-in and goodwill (see Governance Without Goodwill Is Dead). This is yet another reminder of how we need to establish context by creating guard rails that keep the organization out of the ditch.

4. Goal-oriented actors - Previously, the only goals that mattered were the corporate goals but this has now shifted to each constituent acting in their own best interests.

With the guard rails in place, responsibility for driving rests on the individual drivers, each in their own vehicle with both hands on the wheel.

5. Local Influences: Actors are influenced by local interactions and limited information. Feedback within their sphere of communication alters the behaviour of individuals. No individual actor has data about all of an emergent system. EA must increasingly coordinate.

There is a massive amount of information flowing through the modern organization, and the majority of it originates and circulates right on the front line where the dynamic nature of today's agile organization demands a high degree of "in the heat of battle" decision-making. This suggests EA add value by encouraging a broad community that is willing and able to actively contribute to and consume a real-time, high-bandwidth stream of communication. It's not our job to assimilate it all and make decisions. Instead, as individual consumers at the trough of the information stream, we help drive the information out to those who need it the most. I don't really like the use of the word "coordinate" here. We're only coordinating in the indirect sense. Perhaps this role is some combination of the Connector, Maven, and Salesman roles described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point.

6. Dynamic or Adaptive Systems: The system (the individual actors as well as the environment) changes over time. EA must design emergent systems [that] sense and respond to changes in their environment.

This is one of the most important functions of the Enterprise Architecture discipline in a modern organization. We have a responsibility to bring a "systems thinking" perspective to the table and influence the design of flexible and adaptive systems - systems that have the ability to learn from and respond to their experience. When talking about systems, here, it's critical that we deliberately design this adaptive nature into our products AND our organizations. I'm happy to see that Gartner is beginning to recognize organizations as a type of "complex adaptive system".

7. Resource-Constrained Environment: An environment of abundance does not enable emergence; rather, the scarcity of resources drives emergence.

Most of us are operating under the influence of unprecedented economic conditions, and these times demand that we become more creative. In fact, creative isn't really the right word. To respond to the reality of the corporate climate of today (and tomorrow), we're going to need to be "clever" - adroit, nimble, resourceful, and mentally quick. The organizations that thrive in the future will be those that respond today by building a sustainable system of Agile capabilities that maximize the contribution of every associate.

It's good to see Gartner lend its voice to the value of "emergence" in architecture. Gone are the days where a few of us at the top of an organization can see the future clearly enough to design a top-down response. For the past decade, nearly all the modern management and leadership literature has recognized that it's increasingly necessary to create empowered communities that respond to a vision with heart and passion. Organizations that adopt these principles are able to create, embrace, and capitalize on opportunities. As Enterprise Architects, our role is to help lead the establishment of that vision and create an appropriate context in which those opportunities are readily recognized and embraced with all the energy and intellect of the community.

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