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Enterprise Architecture in an Agile World

Rob McCurley | March 14, 2018

It has become a common refrain over the past few years to view the practice of enterprise architecture (EA) as something that time has passed by, much like using email or making actual phone calls on a smartphone. The ascent of agile methodologies and practices has seemingly relegated architectural concepts to the dustbin of history.

This article will argue that the suggestions that EA’s time has past are misguided at best, and potentially risky at worst to companies that view it in that context. That said, the sad truth is that EA has been misunderstood and misinterpreted over many years, and has earned its less than stellar reputation through poorly organized, designed and executed architectural efforts.

In many insurers, EA has mostly failed to live up to its potential and promises. The reasons cited for this failure, familiar and in many cases justified, include:

  • EA is too methodical and process-heavy when agility is needed
  • EA focuses on technology perfection rather than business practicality
  • EA focuses on governance rather than business technology enablement
  • Architects live in “ivory towers” and avoid issues of day-to-day IT

If these reasons are valid – and they mostly are - then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that EA is not only unnecessary, but it may even be viewed as a negative proposition. If you dig deeper, however, one finds that these are not failures of EA per se, but instead, they are failures of practitioners to adhere to the principles and concepts of EA itself.

The purpose of EA is to enhance the interplay between technologies and business processes to better support and enable business needs and goals. When architects move away from this fundamental value proposition, they lose relevance to IT and among business leaders. Architects can regain relevance by refocusing their practices around two principles.

The first principle of EA is the linkage of architecture and business. Architects often act as if their problem domain is technology. It’s not. Architects, like everyone else in the company, are tasked with making the business more successful. Architecture teams currently misaligned with the business goals can realign themselves by making a few key adjustments:

  • Understand the Business: Architects must make time to learn about the non-technical aspects of their company's business. They should spend time observing business processes in action, and discuss business challenges and opportunities with business management at every level.
  • Communicate in Business Terms: Architects sometimes project an uber-nerd persona. This can alienate business colleagues and even senior IT staff. Architects need to take their understanding of the business and communicate regarding solutions to business problems – reducing costs, lowering headcount, enhancing business processes, enabling customers, etc. They should use instructive analogies and stories. With self-awareness and coaching, architects can learn to communicate more effectively.
  • Measure Architecture in Business Terms: More evolved architecture teams maintain metrics about their practice. But often these metrics will seem artificial or useless to outsiders. Architects should examine metrics they collect and affirm that they provide business-relevant information. Not that every parameter must relate directly to the corporate bottom line. Metrics about technology are fine as long as they are framed to give insight into how it supports the company.

Shifting to a business orientation doesn’t necessarily force a wholesale overhaul of an architecture practice. The key activities of analysis, modeling and technology governance can continue, but they need to be reassessed through the lens of business success. Consider pruning activities that are hard to justify through this perspective.

The second principle the modern architect should focus on is to embrace agility. Agility is used to mean different things, but overall it reflects the fact that everything moves at a much faster pace than it did a few decades ago.

  • Support Business Agility: Accept that different parts of any insurer’s business run at different speeds. When speed to market is important, architectural standards can be relaxed. Prioritize modernization efforts around agility.
  • Support IT Agility: Don’t resist agile development methodologies – adopt a lighter touch to integrate with them instead. Be selective about the artifacts that the architecture team produces – create only enough and in enough detail to get the job done.
  • Get in the Trenches: Develop, hire and otherwise obtain architects that don't mind getting their hands dirty with the tough day-to-day work of communicating, planning, developing, adjusting and communicating again. It's challenging to have an agile architecture that responds quickly to changing business and technology requirements if you're not plugged into the business functional areas and the people around the company that drive the requirements. This is essential and has benefits on multiple levels, not the least of which is demonstrating to the rest of the company that architects add value to the business efforts, have a deep understanding of the business needs and can effectively wed those to the most effective technology approaches.

 

Finally, in a world where the insurance industry is changing in dramatic and fundamental ways, EA is, in fact, more necessary than ever. The macro trends of digital transformation, customer centricity, mobile first and the demographics of next-generation customers have driven nearly all insurers to reconsider their strategic and operational models. As a result, almost all insurers are in the midst of some combination of core systems transformations, creating or enhancing mobile platforms, and partnering with the Insurtech community to bring innovation and creativity into their companies.

 

This change requires insurers to take a fresh look at how they can best leverage the concepts and principles of EA for the long-term benefits it can provide. And, the good news is that none of this is pie-in-the-sky stuff. Instead, it's a common sense approach to reestablishing the practice of EA in an increasingly agile and digital world.

 


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