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Benefits under the hood

Benefits under the hood

Enterprise architecture is a behind-the-scenes creator of value rather than a value in itself and that's how it should be sold to businesses.

Many organisations have spent considerable sums of money establishing an enterprise architecture (EA) capability. Whilst not decrying EA, it is also true that many of these endeavours have not fulfilled expectations in terms of value delivered relative to the investment made. Indeed some such initiatives have failed outright, producing countless diagrams and models that have failed to resonate with business people

Frequently, business people just don't get EA. They see it as yet another IT silver bullet; another case of IT over-promising and under-delivering.

Like many IT initiatives, business people perceive an air of mystery surrounding EA and can be uncomfortable with the lingua franca, which makes it seem inaccessible. When quizzing senior business executives about their perception of EA a common theme emerges.

While they have observed earnestly-pursued EA work being carried out in their organisations, it is sometimes done with insufficient business engagement and the artefacts produced appear to have limited value.

Is this the fault of EA or the way in which it is "sold" within organisations? My inclination is to believe that the latter is the case. EA does provide value but many senior IT professionals make the mistake of placing EA at the centre of new IT strategies rather than using it in a supporting capacity.

Let's turn from EA for a moment to consider the Skoda Superb. "Superb" may be a silly name for a car but this is the model that sits at the very top of the Skoda range. It's the aspirational model, competing with many ­luxury brands, albeit at a lower price.

Originally of Czechoslovakian origin, the Skoda brand name vanished from the Australian market in 1983 only to reappear in 2007. A quirky brand perhaps, it was reborn in 1991 when it was acquired by the Volkswagen Group.

Since then it has earned a strong reputation, frequently being lauded by Top Gear (the Superb was Top Gear's 2009 Luxury Car of the Year) and achieving international recognition as the vehicle sponsor of major sporting events such as the Tour de France and the Tour Down Under.

What does a Skoda Superb have to do with EA? Well, quite a lot actually.

In a highly competitive market, where on an international scale car prices are trending downwards and are likely to continue to do so as formidable market offerings are released from India and China, major car companies are looking at platform sharing as a means of amortising production costs.

Thus, beneath its skin a Skoda Superb has essentially the same underpinnings (motor, chassis and suspension) as the Volkswagen Passat range and the Audi A4 range as well.

What drives Volkswagen to achieve economies of scale across its brands epitomises the major constructs behind EA: that is, the concept of minimising the number of building blocks (application modules, business processes, IT infrastructure etc), then focusing on re-use.

Volkswagen takes this concept very seriously. Even premium brands such as Bentley are affected. The V12 engine used in the Bentley Continental is nothing more than two Volkswagen V6 engines joined together, although Bentley would prefer consumers to think otherwise.

EA is not an end in itself but a means to an end. Unfortunately, over many years and often with the complicity of Enterprise Architects, the CIOs that engaged them and certain consulting firms, EA has been presented to senior executives as a panacea.

It has been pursued by some in much the same way that a New Guinean or Melanesian tribesman might proselytise cargo cults. Belief is expected; material gain is promised but rarely, if ever, delivered.

Complexity results in greater expense, whether as one-off or ongoing costs. It hampers agility. Among other factors, EA strives to reduce complexity. And this is where there is a significant divergence between the behaviour of the Volkswagen Group and that of many IT practitioners.

Volkswagen doesn't particularly want purchasers of its products (especially premium brands such as Audi, Bentley and Bugatti) to realise that a significant amount of platform sharing takes place across its entire range.

However, this practice has made it one of the world's most profitable automotive groups and one that continues to grow in sales volume and profitability as others languish. Indeed, automotive analysts expect Volkswagen to eclipse Toyota as the world's biggest selling brand by 2018.

Doing so will merely confuse most people who may well interpret such moves as further IT obfuscation. Rather, do as Volkswagen has done by building EA concepts into strategic plans and embed its principles into everyday activities: save costs, deliver value but refrain from shouting about the underlying methodology from the roof tops.

Rob Mackinnon is an adviser with IBRS. Email comments to rmackinnon@ibrs.com.au

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