The importance of enterprise architecture

What you’d give to be a fly on the wall in the City IT architects’ drinking club right now. The secretive club, which is reputed to meet regularly in a public house in the City of London, must be an interesting talking shop, as the current bloodbath at the banks puts the role of the enterprise architect centre stage. One of the most prominent, Alix Cheema, head of architecture and design at Lloyds TSB, for example, will soon have the task of integrating its architecture with what’s left of HBOS. That’s some responsibility.

Enterprise architecture (EA) has been climbing up organisations’ agendas for a number of years, not least because it provides the A in their SOA service-oriented architecture strategy, and the challenge of imposing this design pattern across an enterprise and driving out the benefits of re-use that SOA promises can only be achieved with the involvement of the architects. These individuals who sit at the interface between IT and operations, and between strategy and projects, are crucial in bringing IT and the business in sync.

But as EA emerges from the shadows, some confusion remains about what enterprise architecture is all about and what skills and experiences you should be looking for in an enterprise architect. What, for example, is the difference between a systems architect, business architect and enterprise architect? How is the CIO supposed to work with this newly empowered enterprise architecture team? And how should you organise a team that spans so many different areas?

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Merger-and-acquisition activity is not the only circumstance in which the need for an architectural approach comes to the fore – any strategic business decision really needs to involve the architecture teams. At transportation and logistics giant Con-way, a project to investigate a new strategic business venture involved Maja Tibbling, the company’s lead enterprise architect, from its inception in April last year. “It was very flattering to be asked to be involved from the beginning,” she says. Even better was when the VP from the business unit involved used the term ‘SOA’ on a conference call when explaining a decision.

In fact, Jackie Barretta, Con-way’s CIO, consults her 14-strong architecture team on a regular basis. “She relies on the team to set the direction and she delegates things to us, so if for example a new business unit is about to choose its own technology, she trusts us to be involved,” says Tibbling. “She always runs things by us, even when she’s making a presentation. If it’s about a new IT strategy, our role is more consultative; she makes up her own mind.”

The group, which is made up of both domain experts or systems architects and true enterprise architects, is attached to various projects and teams around the company – including leading the integration effort with acquired companies. Tibbling says the central EA group, which was set up in 1995 as a centre of excellence in SOA after a successful pilot in Con-way Freight, is more stretched than it was and therefore relies on education more. “That’s a painful lesson we have learnt. We need to teach people more from a philosophical perspective about what makes a good service, and what are the boundaries of a service. We didn’t realise how much ongoing care that needed.” She adds, though, that having the central team in place is indispensable. “It’s about the approach – otherwise architecture can turn into such a hairball.”