Enterprise architecture has only begun to tap the power of digital platforms, says MIT thought leader

Enterprise architecture has only begun to tap the power of digital platforms, says MIT thought leader
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Enterprise architecture — critical to establishing organizations’ long-term business technology strategies — has come a long way, but have only begun the process of bringing technologies and processes to a point where they are manageable and responsive. 

Photo: MIT

That’s the word from Jeanne Ross, highly regarded author and thought leader who recently retired from MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research (CISR), provided some compelling parting thoughts on the work that still needs to be done in the EA space. In her interview, she described how EA thinking has evolved over the past three decades, noting that today’s priority is to “designing your people, processes, and technology so that you can meet customers’ expectations and offer new digital offerings that solve their problems.” 

EA evolved as an essential practice in response to the fact that “many people felt they were spending way too much money on IT in their company and getting very little value for it,” Ross says, That remains the case today. “Enterprise architecture is the key to IT success. The trick to getting value from enterprise architecture is to commit to the long haul. This is not an initiative or a project. This is an approach to managing your company.” 

Ross and CISR researchers established that companies move through five stages of enterprise architecture maturity:

  • Business silos: Locally optimized business solutions
  • Standardized technology: Infrastructure platforms
  • Optimized core: Digitized process platform
  • Business modularity: Components with interfaces to platforms
  • Digital ecosystem: Components connecting with partners’ components
  • Stage three, the digitization stage, is the money stage, Ross says — involving “very specific processes that capture that data and helps them use it more effectively.” This encompasses “using technology to guide people through optimal enterprise processes like supply chain, accounts payable, billing, and sales – is where companies really begin to derive value from IT, Ross said. Forward-looking companies at this stage “put in enterprise systems that really worked and created huge value.” 

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    The problem that enterprises have been encountering, Ross, says, is getting hung up at stage three. “We observed massive failures in business transformations that frankly were lasting six, eight, 10 years. It’s so hard because it’s an exercise in reductionism, in tight focus,” she said. “We recommend that companies zero in on their single most important data. this is the packaged data you keep – the customer data, the supply chain data… this is the thing that matters most. If they get this right, then things will take off.”

    The challenge is now moving past this stage, as in the fourth stage, “we actually understand now that what’s starting to happen is we can start to componentize our business,” says Ross. She estimates that only about seven percent of companies have reached this stage. “This is not just about plugging modules into this platform, this is about recognizing that any product or process can be decomposed into people, process and technology bundles. And we can assign individual teams or even individuals’ accountability for one manageable piece that that team can keep up to date, improve with new technology, and respond to customer demand.”

    As a result, “more empowered teams doing more things faster. Of course we have to coordinate all that, which is challenging. But the rewards really are huge.”

    In the fifth stage, she continues, “we start to see these ecosystem environments, and all these things Apple can do with all these app developers, or that Amazon does with its platform. These are real objectives.”

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    “What we have learned is EA is growing up, and that’s huge news,” Ross says. “We can look at the individual components that make up companies, assign accountability, and move forward. How do we really make this happen? How do we assign those accountabilities for people process and technology components so that companies can move faster and drive more value?”


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