An argument is now quietly echoing around the halls of IT supplier and user organisations. In one corner is the hard-edged voice of the business economist, typified by a Harvard Business Review article entitled "IT Doesn't Matter".
In the other is a gaggle of voices owned by the world's most powerful IT suppliers, all of which are promoting new visions which promise to take advantage of internet-based technologies to wring increased value out of enterprise IT assets and show that IT does matter.
IT suppliers are attempting to explain the arguments to their customers through new blueprints and visions for "enterprise-scale" or "end-to-end" software design. IBM's "e-business on demand", Microsoft's "business agility", and Hewlett-Packard's "adaptive enterprise" are just some examples of these initiatives.
The issues illustrated within these initiatives are crucial for IT directors to understand. But what they must avoid at all cost, is the abdication of responsibility for understanding the potential role and impact of new technologies - or of the suppliers' own offerings - to IT suppliers. Instead IT chiefs must acquaint themselves with the practice of "enterprise architecture".
Enterprise architecture practice takes the goals, structures and behaviours of a business, and maps them to a forward-looking enterprise-wide technology model. It is a critical project for IT directors, because the way to drive real business value from IT today lies somewhere between the view of the business economist and the view of the IT supplier.
In order to progress as valued voices within their enterprises, IT chiefs and their IT organisations must understand how and where these two seemingly competing themes complement each other. These issues are too important to leave to partisan IT suppliers; the practice of enterprise architecture is the only way that IT organisations have of taking control of their technological destinies.
In its report "Enterprise Architecture: Art, engineering and the reinvention of IT", Ovum has developed a simple model of enterprise architecture.
The technology part of Ovum's model shows how web services technologies and service-oriented architecture concepts fit into existing IT asset portfolios. It comprises three distinct layers of software infrastructure, which have to be clearly separated from each other using open industry standards. The layers are:
This layer addresses the need to better manage the connectivity of an organisation's IT assets and processes to internal employees, customers, suppliers and partners, and to each other.
It enables the secure connectivity demanded by multi-channel delivery, cross-organisational collaboration and user mobility. It does this by managing the identities, roles, associated privileges and preferences of the parties which interact with the organisation's business processes - whether they are human users or software programs - from one central place.
This layer addresses the need to build and manage business processes, automated in software, that are more agile and flexible in the face of change - whether that change is to the business requirements; or in the way that processes are accessed and used; or in the way that underlying resources are implemented.
It does this by providing tools that support the whole automated business process lifecycle, from analysis to change management, using open standards.
This layer is responsible for implementing well-defined, open service interfaces that allow other software programs to access IT resources of various types, independently of how and where those resources might be implemented. It is the foundation of the overall architecture model and so is a prerequisite for the process and access infrastructure layers.
Neil Ward-Dutton is principal analyst at Ovum