Enterprise Architecture Basics: A Crash Course for Non-EAs

21 Feb 2023

by Deborah Theseira

As anyone in Enterprise Architecture (EA) who has done quick party introductions knows, explaining EA is tricky. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as other more commonly understood occupations or fields. Even within digital organizations and tech companies, EA tends to float off the radar except for a technical few who work closely with IT.

We have experienced the challenge of onboarding new Ardoqians who have no previous experience in this relatively niche industry. So it’s high time for a crash course in Enterprise Architecture basics, how it came to be, and what the glorious future holds with new data-driven Enterprise Architecture.

A Quick Definition: What is Enterprise Architecture?

Let’s begin with a fairly non-contentious definition of Enterprise Architecture from CIO.com:

“Enterprise architecture (EA) is the practice of analyzing, designing, planning, and implementing enterprise analysis to successfully execute on business strategies. EA helps businesses structure IT projects and policies to achieve desired business results and to stay on top of industry trends and disruptions.”

Admittedly, a rather large mouthful that may resonate a lot with current IT leaders but potentially few outside the IT organization. Gartner offers something that drills up to the big picture more and why EA matters: 

“Enterprise architecture (EA) is a discipline for proactively and holistically leading enterprise responses to disruptive forces by identifying and analyzing the execution of change toward desired business vision and outcomes. EA delivers value by presenting business and IT leaders with signature-ready recommendations for adjusting policies and projects to achieve targeted business outcomes that capitalize on relevant business disruptions.” - Gartner, Definition of Enterprise Architecture

Both of these definitions make very good, strong points about what Enterprise Architecture is, what benefits it can bring to an organization, and who it involves. If we were to distill these definitions down, Enterprise Architecture today helps businesses:

  • Achieve strategic objectives and business vision by supporting gap analysis
  • Model the business in terms of its capabilities, the “what” it can actually do such as general accounting, customer analysis or social media marketing
  • Enable delivery of change at pace, facilitating the shift of IT away from projects to focus instead on delivering product-centric IT centred on business value
  • Planning for effective, continuous digital transformation to support the business’s strategy and goals
  • Provide leaders with clear recommendations for cost, impact, and timeline of activities 
  • Achieve the future state by supporting the development of new value streams, products and services. 
  • Reduce organization’s exposure to risk, aiding in continuous risk mitigation and cybersecurity efforts

We say Enterprise Architecture “today” because EA as a field has evolved quite a bit from where the practice started well over 30 years ago.

The Origins of Enterprise Architecture

Enterprise Architecture emerged in the 1980s when business technology began to burgeon. With the rapid rise in computer systems, companies found they needed a way to plan and be more strategic to support this rapid growth. Compared to today, it was a largely pre-digital age for most of the world, and the scope of IT in business was relatively small.

During this time, early EA standards like the Zachman Framework and IEEE 1471 (now ISO/IEC/IEEE 42010) were founded. They have two core principles:

  • Enterprise architecture should consist of a series of views (drawings) expressing standardized architecture viewpoints (standardized representations of the different architecture dimensions like process, data, or application).
  • These views should be integrated or linked together to represent the end-to-end enterprise architecture.

These core principles focused on diagrams and documentation, so traditional EA tools centered on drawing capabilities that could support creating and managing views or viewpoints. With this focus on viewpoints and documentation, early EA tools functioned mainly as central repositories managed by Enterprise Architects. This basic concept of the EA tool holds true in the minds of many still today, and that perspective has led to some unfortunate stereotypes that continue to cause challenges in the industry. 

The Challenges with “Old” Enterprise Architecture

The needs of businesses today have changed substantially. Unfortunately, many EA tools still maintain the focus on documentation they were originally conceived with. Clashes between the two in the early days have given rise to some lasting stereotypes and criticism of the field, such as:

Intrinsically IT Only, Focused on Technological Enablement

As Enterprise Architecture began in IT, it is often incorrectly perceived to be a function of IT alone with a narrow focus on technological enablement, disconnected with the business’s strategy and goals. 

Inflexibility in Approach

Strict adherence to leading methodologies or frameworks such as The Open Group Architectural Framework (TOGAF) or Federal Enterprise Architecture Framework (FEAF) also makes the approach extremely rigid.

Inaccessibility and Insularity

Excessive jargon comes from working with frameworks that only professional EAs can interpret, leading to the perception that EA is meant to be inaccessible to the rest of the organization. Conventional EA tooling also assumes the end user is an experienced engineer with a strong technical background. This makes it difficult for other users or stakeholders in the organization to derive value from these tools, leading to the misconception that the architecture is not relevant or useful for other functions or at a greater strategic level.

Inability to Connect

EA practitioners excel at dealing with large sets of data and connecting the dots to create an overview that no other function is able to for the organization. However, often they become bogged down with the technical vocabulary that is their bread and butter, presenting much more data and visualizations than is helpful for a non-EA stakeholder. Communication expertise is a growing critical need for a successful Enterprise Architect.

Why Do We Need Enterprise Architecture At All?

With all of these challenges, it begs the question. Do companies need Enterprise Architecture at all?

Well, the misconceptions that plague EA and rapid technological advances have compelled the field to evolve substantially. In being forced to evolve, EA practitioners have found new ways to provide value to the business. The core mission of EA to visualize and connect has not changed, but the scope of EA has changed drastically.

Conventional EA focused on IT and infrastructure as one separate, siloed function of a business however, currently, digital technology, applications, and processes are present in every function and every value chain. To have an overview of IT and infrastructure is to have an overview of the entire business’ workings, what its capabilities are, and the value it delivers. The value that EA’s overview brings is manifold, helping to: 

  • Create a complete, detailed overview of what the organization really has and does, also called its present state
  • Build a roadmap that is flexible to change and disruptions, empowering businesses to respond with agility and alignment
  • Enable effective, measurable change by diving into the details of what is needed
  • Understand and plan support for the organization’s future state, which is where the organization needs to be in order to achieve its long-term strategic goals

EA is especially useful for large organizations which struggle with legacy systems and disjointed digitalization or digital transformation. Could businesses do all of this without EA? Perhaps. There are many different tools that could seemingly offer some of these benefits.

It’s often asked if, say, a configuration management database (CMDB) tool could be relied on for digital transformation. On the surface, there are some similarities, and they do have some overlap in terms of the things they track. However, the overall intent is quite different.

CMDB tools maintain data about a company’s IT assets and their relationships, and so too does an EA tool. However, CMDBs exclusively focus on day-to-day operations of IT systems and asset management. A CMDB focuses on low-level implementation of IT systems and has a clear handle on the current state. So it checks the box on an overview but only for a limited scope of operations and does not support roadmapping or understanding how these IT systems support the business. 

EA tools were created to support strategic planning and so focus more on how IT systems support the business at a higher level, as well as planning out the future state of the organization through modeling and roadmapping. An EA tool is able to map the organization, end-to-end, which a CMDB cannot do. CMDBs also lack the required analytical functions that EA tools have. It is clear that CMDBs and EA tools play very different roles in an organization.

However, for EA practitioners to realize EA’s full potential, they need to overcome past issues, in both approach and tooling. EA as a practice is now focused on helping organizations modernize for the digital era. Hence the rise of “new Enterprise Architecture.” 
man learning about enterprise architecture basics

What Defines “New” Enterprise Architecture?

New Enterprise Architecture seeks to capitalize on EA’s core mission of visualizing and connecting, but in a way that engages the rest of the organization to enable better change across the business.

“One key indicator of [Enterprise Architecture’s] evolution is the increasing interest in enterprise architecture management (EAM) tools, which transformational enterprise architects and CIOs are turning to in order to jointly digitize the business.” - CIO.com, Enterprise architecture modernizes for the digital era

While every newer generation of EA tool will have its own strengths, here are some things that set most apart from conventional EA tooling of the past. 

  • People in the Mix and Engagement-Focused Tooling

EA is no longer just about IT infrastructure. It’s about ecosystem architecture. More than just visualizing and connecting applications and processes, people have to be in the mix, with EA serving as a way to bridge teams. This means that engagement-focused tooling catering to the citizen user, rather than the technical architect, is absolutely critical. 

  • Enabling Agile Data-Driven Decision-Making With Live Insights

Static documentation does the modern enterprise no good. New EA can offer real-time data-driven insights that help businesses keep abreast of rapid change, increase operational efficiency and maintain strategic agility. It does this by delivering contextually enriched and crowdsourced data that can help decision-makers across the business address complex business questions with confidence and speed.

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  • Less Manual Documentation, More Visualization

Traditional EA tooling would require substantial hours from the specialized EA or greater IT organization to painstakingly collate hundreds of data sources across the organization. This may include conducting interviews and surveys. From this data, the team would map out dependencies using presentation software. With new EA, the focus is on being dynamic and data-driven. No more manual drawings, but live visualizations based on the data in your enterprise’s architecture that can be modified or shared easily.  

  • Cloud-Native for a Consistent Experience

Organizations can no longer risk relying on manual, disconnected documentation tied to individuals. The EA tooling of today is cloud-native to ensure a superior, consistent experience and up-to-date access to data and insights whenever required, serving as the single source of truth for the organization. Being cloud-native also reduces the burden on the business to identify and manage security risks about architectural information. That duty rests more heavily on the EA tooling provider, with some, such as Ardoq, boasting ISO 27001:2017 certification and conducting regular annual SOC 2 (Type II) audits to ensure the highest standards of information security.

Get a more detailed look at the evolution of Enterprise Architecture and how it has changed to meet modern business needs.

Enterprise Architecture Basics: A Quick Summary

  • Enterprise Architecture began with a strong focus on documentation and manual diagramming in a predominantly pre-digital age, administered by a technical few.  
  • With digital pervading all aspects and functions of business today, EA’s overview of IT and infrastructure is needed now more than ever.  
  • New EA tools of today have shifted focus towards live data-driven insights that improve the quality of decisions made and aid strategic planning.
  • EA and new EA tools are able to map the modern organization end-to-end in a way no other tool or specialization seeks to do. 

Learn more about how a new EA tool like Ardoq can help future-proof your organization to make better decisions faster.

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Deborah Theseira Deborah Theseira Deborah is a Content Specialist at Ardoq. She wields words in the hope of demystifying the complex and ever-evolving world of Enterprise Architecture.
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