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The changing role of the enterprise architect

Enterprise architecture has traditionally been an IT role, but the impact of technological disruption means some of its functions may be best located outside of IT

It’s no secret that the enterprise architect (EA) function is a technology-focused one and as such falls under the IT department’s domain. The reasoning behind this is logical – to quote several IT leaders, “You cannot architect technology unless you have developed technology”.

Given this belief, the EA role has typically been sourced from IT department staff  – specifically those who have been in solution or development roles on projects for line of business (LoB) functions.

Consider this, however, from the Open Group’s architecture forum: “A good enterprise architecture enables you to achieve the right balance between business transformation and continuous operational efficiency.”

From this definition of the EA role, there are clearly two distinct parts to it. It’s challenging to understand how both parts can be served equally or truly effectively across a medium-sized or large organisation.

One half of the role acts as a change agent for business transformation and the other as a quality agent, ensuring consistency through continuous operational efficiency. At the point of widespread adoption, the focus of the role would be on operational efficiency, and therefore it was placed in the operationally focused IT department.

However, the requirements of a 21st century organisation to adapt to its environment and disruptive external forces indicate that the business transformative piece of the EA puzzle is more critical than ever.

The enterprise architect’s new roles

The need to focus on operational efficiency has diminished the EA’s role as a pan-organisation technology strategist.

To address this and the needs of modern organisations, the current singular EA role must be devolved into its three component parts, eliminating the constraints it has experienced over the past decades, which have limited its strategic value to the organisation.

These separate roles – strategist, engineer and custodian – must also reside and operate permanently in corporate strategy, the programme office, and the IT department, respectively. So how do we broadly define these roles?

Strategist

This role acts as a positive change agent, assessing outlier and newly adopted technologies to propose how their use can serve the corporate leadership’s vision, at the start of a business strategy’s development.

Strategists also assess whether already-adopted technologies can be individually or collectively repurposed to support proposed business goals within each business strategy creation cycle.

Engineer

The technology engineer role is responsible for creating project technology designs that fit the business strategy. From the point of drafting to final design, the engineer consults with both the strategist and custodian roles. This consultation maintains a consistent alignment between the strategic use of technology in the business strategy and the organisation’s established technology standards.

Once the final design has been approved within the project team, the engineer’s role focuses on ensuring the quality of the implementation is optimal throughout the build phase and no shortcuts are taken across the life of the project.

Custodian

This role takes responsibility for the organisation’s technology standards being applied, wherever and however they are required, from both day-to-day and strategic perspectives. This ensures a required minimum viable level of functional performance to promote consistency, safety and cost efficiency across the organisation’s technology usage.

Since configuration, maintenance and modification activities occur on a regular basis, this role will interact the most with the day-to-day operations of both LoB functions and the IT department. The custodian acts as the “connective tissue” between his or her peers by engaging directly with the other roles.

Splitting the EA function

Splitting the EA function into three separate roles performed by different employees will raise understandable challenges with regards to headcount and related costs. However, the limitation on the EA role to date has been caused by the combination of where it operates from, the organisational structure it reports into, and the expectation to perform all three roles as one.

Some might consider the proposed split is simply a repositioning of the singular EA role, in which the role is not split into three separate roles but seconded out to the corporate strategy department and programme office for specific short-term strategic activities.

Not only would this interpretation be unwise, but it is part of the traditional thinking that has caused the role’s true potential to become marginalised and stagnate over the past several decades.

Technology strategy is commonly discussed as something separate from an organisation’s business strategy – this has created an artificial division that must be ended. The role of technology should be to influence and serve one or many elements of a business strategy as it is being developed, not something that is created separately from the business strategy and aligned later.

Divide and conquer

If organisations maintain the EA role in its traditional form, their ability to identify, anticipate and adjust to the continued impact of external factors will continue to diminish.

Given that the nature of an organisation is that of a complex adaptive system, it’s long overdue that the broken “inside-out” – from inside of IT, out to the business – nature of the singular EA role is rectified. Dividing the role provides a business-critical capability the organisation needs in the CEO-facing corporate strategy department, and office of the COO.

The accepted norms of how an IT function operates and the roles in it must be questioned now to stop a slow decline into obsolescence, through failure to anticipate and adapt to changing business operating dynamics.

Spencer Izard is lead advisor and researcher at Leading Edge Forum.

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The author is (understandably) misinformed: the EA role has *never* been primarily about technology, but ignorance about Architecture is widespread in general by corporate executives, managers who have been appointed to lead Architecture Practices and even, to some degree, among many EAs themselves. The reason: a simple lack of educating themselves. 
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