How enterprise architects need to evolve to survive in a digital world

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Oliver Bossert and Niels Van der Wildt for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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Many CIOs at large incumbents have made a startling discovery about digital natives: those businesses often don’t have architects or at least anyone with the formal title of “enterprise architect.” With CIOs increasingly moving their organizations to an agile DevOps operating model, that discovery has prompted much questioning about whether they still need architects, and if so, what they should be doing.While incumbents can learn plenty from digital natives and adopt many of their practices, eliminating the architect role shouldn’t be one of them. That’s because digital natives have the benefits of a highly skilled and experienced workforce operating in a start-up culture on a modern architecture with few legacy issues.
Development teams in most incumbent organizations, however, don’t enjoy those benefits. They are used to workarounds such as creating direct point-to-point connections because, for decades, that’s been the only way to get things done. The reality is that most organizations still need architects. In fact, our research with Henley Business School is clear: digital transformations suffer when architects are not involved (See Exhibit 1). Technical debt increases, and fewer services are reused.

Expanding the objectives of enterprise architecture

The objectives of, and demands on, enterprise architecture (EA) are changing rapidly as the importance of technology in driving business value increases. The EA function is a core element of the foundation that both enables and accelerates the tech transformation that companies need in order to compete in a digital-first world. In this kind of modern environment, the objectives of the EA team are threefold.

1. Enable strategic decisions

Setting strategic direction has always been an important EA task, but with many companies becoming increasingly digital, it has become a business-level priority. In the past, major failures affected only the IT budget. Now, they affect the entire business. In a typical retail environment, for example, a major flaw in the overall architecture, such as an integration architecture that doesn’t scale well, would lead to a slight increase in IT costs but only a minor impact on the margin. With a substantial portion of sales moving to online channels, however, the same mistake could cause an outage with substantial lost sales.

Similarly, EA decisions, such as where to establish a shared solution across countries or business units and where not to, can have a direct impact on the business’s strategy and operating model. Take the retail world again. When an enterprise architect decides whether checkout and payment functionality is implemented in two systems—the point-of-sale (POS) terminal and the e-commerce system, for example—or one, it is not only a big investment decision with a $100 million price tag, but it also has a massive effect on the operating model and the company’s ability to realize the corporate vision of becoming an omnichannel retailer.

For these reasons, digitally advanced companies create a plan for the future and engage enterprise architects to figure out a system that can enable it (See Exhibit 2).

2. Ensure reusability

In the past, ensuring reusability was mainly a cost consideration, which meant development was generally treated as a one-off. Pilot functions that were developed and tested quickly often became permanent, but they scaled poorly and led to greater technical debt.

In another case, a retail company implemented an algorithm that calculated the final price after all promotional offers into its e-commerce system. The need to support mobile checkouts, however, then led the retailer to decide to build out this feature a second time. With complex and rapidly changing promotion mechanics, this duplication inevitably led to diverging results and therefore to a bad customer experience when the promotion shown online was not identical to the one in the store. EA plays a crucial role in avoiding such outcomes by ensuring that new solutions reuse established functionality. This not only avoids wasting time on reinventing the wheel but also helps ensure a consistent customer experience. Architects should facilitate the discussion between product teams around features and solutions, make it easy to find all features available for reuse, and ensure close alignment with the strategy.

3. Enable development speed

The flexibility and responsiveness of a digital business are severely hampered if those traits aren’t also reflected in the tech foundation layer. This means that enterprise architects need to manage a consistent technology stack that comes as a “batteries included,” ready-to-use platform for new development teams. EA can deliver on this by providing two things: all the technology components that teams need to develop, deploy, and test new functionalities, and a curated set of “patterns”—best practices on how to store data, integrate with other teams, and perform other common tasks in the everyday life of a product team.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Oliver Bossert is a partner in McKinsey’s Frankfurt office, and Niels van der Wildt is an associate partner in the London office.

In my opinion, the the single most valuable source to learn more about the issues discussed in this brilliant article is Enterprise Architecture As Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution, co-authored by Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, and David C. Robertson and published by Harvard Business Review Press.

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