Technology by Design

Enterprise architecture shifts IT strategy from the computer room to the boardroom.

Enterprise architecture shifts IT strategy from the computer room to the boardroom.

At its core, enterprise architecture is less about computer applications and more about management. That's why Randy Hite, director of information technology architecture and systems at the Government Accountability Office, says assigning the responsibility to the IT shop is the tail trying to wag the dog. "Enterprise architecture has to be owned by the executive leadership, the business owners and the CXOs," he says.

In August, GAO released the second version of its Framework for Assessing and Improving Enterprise Architecture Management- first issued in 2003-which included seven hierarchical stages. Stage one, according to the report, is establishing "institutional commitment" to the IT strategy, with recognition from top executives.

"EA is a tool that is going to help the senior executives guide and direct the organization, so it has to be owned by them," Hite says. "There needs to first be an understanding by top executives of what EA is, followed by buy-in of this as a corporate strategic asset."

Defining enterprise architecture, which is somewhat conceptual, is not easy. Many equate it to IT consolidation and standardization: streamlining computer systems and applications so different business units borrow from the same resources. Though not wrong, the definition isn't comprehensive either, Hite says, since it focuses squarely on technology. Viewed properly, enterprise architecture focuses predominantly on the mission and how technology can support it.

"More times than not, the way an enterprise has been organized defines how it delivers services," Hite says. "But the promise behind EA is you suboptimize the parts in order optimize the whole."

This requires cooperation among many disparate entities, which in itself can be a challenge. GAO recommends agencies establish executive committees that include representatives from all business lines-such as acquisition, human resources, finance and information systems-to ensure the architecture is implemented properly and considered in daily operations and project planning.

"Within the federal government, there are different owners for [most] of the individual management disciplines you see. Everyone has developed their own turf, with the strategy being, 'I do my bit, throw it over the transom and move on,' " says Michael Dunham, manager for enterprise transformation services at WBB Consulting and former chief enterprise architect for the Treasury Department. "The enterprise architecture can help inform an organization's strategic plan by defining where an agency wants to go and where the agency currently is in terms of assets. But that dialogue is not as healthy as it could be. EA is just seen as background noise."

The 1996 Information Technology Management Reform Act makes chief information officers responsible for developing and maintaining an agency's enterprise architecture, and each Cabinet-level department has a chief architect to drive its implementation. But most agency initiatives are driven from the program office, and top officials must reinforce requirements for program managers to consider the enterprise architecture during their planning, Dunham says.

"Executive endorsement is there in pockets, but certainly not across the board. Most folks are politicos who will be there for two or three years to perform a specific function; it's few that are coming in and wanting to be really transformational."

Part of the problem is leadership seems to be waning-at least at the highest levels. President Bush's management agenda assigned agencies color-coded scores for progress on plans that link technology to core missions, but enterprise architecture has barely earned a mention by the Obama administration. Any traces of accountability from the Office of Management and Budget, which declined comment for this article, seem to have disappeared.

"We always knew governance was important. We'd say we needed buy-in-somebody to sprinkle holy water on this approach of EA so everyone would say hallelujah," says Richard Burk, who was chief architect at OMB from 2005 to 2007 and is now an independent consultant. "My observation now from outside government is that it hasn't been supported during this administration; or if it has been, I don't know where the support has showed up."

Bob Haycock, OMB's first chief architect from 2002 until 2004, also notes lackluster momentum. "I was lucky enough to land in OMB at that point in time when there was a commitment to EA as both a strategy and an approach," he says. "For those couple of years, it was really significant. Since then, it's dropped off the radar." The emphasis now is on what Haycock calls the "latest flavors of the month," including cloud computing and Web 2.0 collaborative applications.

"Often one approach is pushed aside for what people view as an alternative, but it's really not," he adds. "All these [strategies] still require the structure that is established through an enterprise architecture to understand how services are defined and how they interact. These are all good, effective technologies, but there needs to be some foundation."

That foundation takes time to create, and officials with the Obama administration are more focused on "throwing data out there for people to use as they choose," says one former federal architect who asked to not be named. "EA is structured by nature and won't result in the same kinds of quick wins."

Enterprise architecture does not need to be one massive undertaking that demands excessive allocation of resources and funds, observers say. GAO's latest version of the EA Framework provides guidance for agencies to establish a conceptual model of what their enterprise architecture would look like and then to take a phased approach to introducing changes in operations. The key is to make sure the processes and technology support the "contextual blueprint" laid out by the architecture, Hite says, "so you can reap value without necessarily boiling the entire ocean."

There are hints of progress. In March, federal Chief Architect Kshemendra Paul issued OMB guidance requiring agencies to evaluate the National Information Exchange Model for sharing data across government. The Homeland Security and Justice departments launched NIEM in 2005 to encourage agencies to design processes that enable jurisdictions to share information in emergency situations and day-to-day operations.

To Burk, sharing capabilities across government is a key advantage to EA.

"Sometimes we should ask ourselves whether we need to be in this business," he says, noting those initiatives that perhaps support or enhance agency operations, but might not be central to the mission. "The answer in a lot of cases is a resounding no."

In another step forward, the Defense Department in May approved the second version of its architecture framework, which focuses on "data rather than on developing individual products as described in previous versions," the department stated on its website. In a memo announcing the second version, Defense CIO Dave Wennergren noted plans to develop a virtual platform that will allow for incremental changes to the architecture based on user feedback.

Defense also joined the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia to establish the International Defence Enterprise Architecture Specification Group to explore ways to make defense architectures interoperable and to ease joint military operations planning. The project is in the initial stages.

"It's clear that the discipline has matured markedly, but now we face the hard part," Dunham says. "This is not just rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. This can lead to some significant transformation if people will just pay attention-where the hell are we, and where we want to go."

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