Enterprise Architect: Advisor versus Gatekeeper

A recent conversation with a colleague delved into the complicated world of new technology decisions. At every organization I’ve been at, this has been a source of contention between four major groups: Enterprise Architects, Domain Architects, Development Teams, and Engineering Teams. I specifically listed Enterprise and Domain Architects separately, because I’ve seen contention between those two groups. It’s easy to come up with scenarios where each one of these teams should be involved, but it’s most problematic when one team tries to “own” the process.

Why does this struggle for ownership occur? Let’s start with a development team. First and foremost, they spend nearly all of their time on projects, which is where things get delivered. They are typically the ones closest to the immediate business need as represented by the project requirements, so they have fewer challenges getting justification or funding. They claim they need the new technology to deliver to the business, so they have a vested stake and want control over the decision.

An engineering team is also involved with projects, but has a challenge of remaining relevant when the project ends. The technology typically gets handed off to an operations team, and if the engineering team has built shared infrastructure, rather than one off infrastructure, there may not be much to do until the vendor releases the next version. Given that, it’s likely that the engineering team will expand into the world of technology architecture, but potentially only with the vendors they know, rather than a vendor-neutral architectural approach. This creates a risk of driving technology adoption based on new features rather than on company need, can create conflict with the technology architecture team, if one exists, and with other technology areas when the continued feature creep results in overlap with other domains. Unfortunately, engineering teams don’t have as much visibility into the business need, because that’s all funneled through projects and the development teams, so it sets the stage for tension between the development and engineering areas.

Now let’s throw in architecture. First, there can be conflicts within architecture teams, if there’s a separation and different reporting relationships for enterprise architects and portfolio/domain architects. Second, enterprise and domain architects can frequently be disconnected from both the “need” process of the projects and the technology delivery of the engineering team. Clearly, the right place for these roles to play is at the portfolio management level, where categorization, prioritization, and strategy takes place that results in the needs of individual projects. That doesn’t always happen though, and these roles often wind up having to get involved by mandate, becoming the gatekeeper or bottleneck that everyone tries to avoid.

As many have said, there are typically far more ways to mess something up than there are to do it correctly, and this is certainly one of them. Coming back to the idea of trusted advisor, my theory is that any approach that tries to mandate that technology introduction only come through one path is probably not going to work. Lots of people get great ideas, and guess what, not all of them come out of any particular role, and plenty of them come from outside of IT. (By the way, the same should hold true in reverse, IT can come up with plenty of good business ideas, just as the business can come up with good IT ideas.) The role of the architect is to be the trusted advisor and provide the appropriate context to make things successful. If someone has a great idea about a new technology, don’t stifle them because you didn’t come up with it, advise them on how to make it work based upon the context you have as an enterprise or domain architect, or advise them that it’s not going to be successful based upon that same context. That’s what an advisor does, and providing the appropriate guidance, whether it is what the other person wants to hear or not, is what will create trust. There will always be people that may be out of alignment with the business needs and priorities, if you don’t create alignment (either by adjusting the individuals view or adjusting your needs and priorities), you will be destined for frustration, splintering, and potential lack of success. Create alignment, and create an environment where appropriate ideas can thrive regardless of the source. That’s the role of the trusted advisor, and that’s a big part of what enterprise and domain architects should do.

All content written by and copyrighted by Todd Biske. If you are reading this on a site other than my “Outside the Box” blog, it’s probably being republished without my permission. Please consider reading it at the source.

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