The Really Big Picture for enterprise-architecture

The ‘Really Big Picture’ for enterprise-architecture is a sustainable world that works well for everyone.

Okay, that’s a bit of a bald statement. Let’s step back a bit.

To me, every enterprise-architecture is anchored in a vision of some kind – a descriptor for the aims of the overall enterprise. (One classic example of an enterprise-vision is the one used by the TED conferences: “ideas worth spreading”.) To achieve what I regard as the core aim of enterprise-architecture – that everything works better when they work together, on purpose – we use the vision as a stable reference-point to which everything in the enterprise can align. All fairly straightforward, both in principle and in practice.

Yet enterprises intersect and nest within each other: each enterprise that we might work on in EA also depends on the enterprises ‘above’ it in terms of scope. Those ‘higher-level’ enterprises provide part of the context for ‘our’ enterprise and its enterprise-architecture. So what is the highest-level enterprise-scope? And what is the implied vision for that enterprise – the Really Big Picture for our own enterprise-architecture? It seems to me that that tag-line above is about the closest we would find to a vision-descriptor for that highest-level enterprise: a sustainable world that works well for everyone.

(We could quibble about some aspects of that enterprise-descriptor: for example, it implies a human-oriented scope. But remember, we always develop an enterprise-architecture about an enterprise but for an organisation – and the ‘organisation’ in context at present is probably no broader in scope than ‘all humans, through all time’… :-) )

That’s the enterprise-architecture at the Really Big Picture level: technically speaking, everything else is a kind of ‘solution-architecture’, building on constraints that are imposed upon us by Reality Department, and other relatively-arbitrary constraints that we ourselves impose on the solution-design.

At that Really Big Picture level, the kind of constraints imposed by Reality Department include the fact that we live on a single very small ball of a planet with limited resources and a fragile overall ecosystem, and there aren’t any spare planets that we could plunder or run away to within conceivable reach at the present time. At the same Really Big Picture level, the self-imposed constraints mainly arise from what in causal layered analysis would be described as the ‘deep-myth’ layer: largely-unconscious assumptions and assertions about ‘how the world really works’. We see these latter constraints as the underpinnings of economics and politics – which combine and merge, for example, in the notion of ‘rights of possession’.

In principle, the enterprise-architecture discipline is a decision-support function, not a decision-making one. Yet it always ends up being somewhat normative, not least because that there are consequences that increase enterprise-risk every time we implement something that points away from the enterprise-vision. (My colleague Kevin Smith would describe that misalignment as increasing the ‘Enterprise Debt‘ – and too much Enterprise Debt can kill the whole enterprise, or at the very least the organisation’s place within that enterprise.) So we need to advise our clients and stakeholders of those consequences, and research and explore alternatives that will still fit all of the unavoidable constraints, yet will also help to minimise – and preferably reduce – the overall long-term Enterprise Debt.

The hard part, for enterprise-architects, is that that process of research will often involve challenging some deep-seated myths and assumptions… which can make us very unpopular if we’re not very careful…

At the Really Big Picture level, what we have to face right now is that probably the core assumption of our entire mainstream economics – the concept of ‘right of possession’ – simply does not work. In an all too literal sense, we’re possessed by possession. (I’m not saying that possession is ‘wrong’, or ‘immoral’, or ‘evil’, or whatever: all I’m saying is that it doesn’t work – it doesn’t and cannot align with the survival-imperative of that Really Big Picture enterprise-vision – and therefore puts everyone at ever-increasing risk.) And if it’s clear that that doesn’t work, we face a literally fundamental re-architecting and redesign of just about everything that we currently think of as ‘normal’ in our economics, politics and pretty much everything else as well. Not an easy fact to face: to be blunt, it’s a very scary picture indeed. Yet to also be blunt, we don’t have much time in which to do it: the morass of indicators on key concerns such as resource-availabilities all tell us that we have perhaps only a few decades at most – if we’re lucky – in which to make that change. Which means that right now, whether we want to or not, we need to be taking that Really Big Picture into account in every aspect of our current everyday enterprise-architecture.

It’s urgent. Really urgent. Yet the scale is so huge, and the scale of change is so huge, that there’s no way we can do it all at once. Instead, like most other aspects of real-world architectures, it’s iterative, tens and hundreds and thousands and millions upon millions of small steps all slowly yet steadily converging on the same overall Really Big Picture vision, yet all happening in the small details of the everyday. In that sense, it’s just like any other form of enterprise-architecture: “challenging, confronting, and intensely political”. :-) But we do need to do it; and we do need to get started now.

So over the next few days I’ll write a series of posts summarising where I think we are now in terms of that Really Big Picture, various thought-experiments that we could explore to build a better sense of the implications, and how we can apply those understandings in our everyday work in enterprise-architectures and the like. (I’ll prefix each of these posts with ‘RBP-EA’ – Really Big Picture enterprise-architecture.) In reality this is about a fundamental shift in paradigm or worldview – the ways we think, the ways we interact with others, the ways we act on the world – but in practice it’s not that big a change, because we apply it in small adjustments to how we think and what we do in our enterprise-architectures and the like. Even at the end of this, everyday life will go on, much as before – because that is the way that things work. But those small tweaks will all help to re-align to the overall human enterprise, and help to reduce the overall human Enterprise Debt. And in the meantime, it should also lead to everyday enterprise-architectures that are more efficient and effective – which means that our existing architecture-clients will be happy, too. Everyone wins. :-)

That’s what we’re aiming for here, anyway.

Where did this start? In reality, I’ve been working on this for years – as you’ll see if you scroll back through the earlier posts in this weblog, for example. But this particular exercise was triggered off after trying to explain yet again on one of the LinkedIn enterprise-architecture lists that we need to think more broadly than monetary terms alone when developing even the business-oriented layers of an enterprise-architecture. For some reason, US folks in particular seem really to struggle with the idea that there can be any other form of value than money – perhaps because US corporate law all but enforces this sadly lethal form of mercantile myopia. This time, though, it was one of the more annoying British-based ‘enterprise-architecture’ trolls who laid into me about this, gleefully launching into mockery and petty personal put-downs as a shallow pseudo-substitute for any form of analysis or thought. (The pointless persistence of those pathetic trolls is one of the reasons I’ve all but abandoned LinkedIn these days. Oh well.) There’s never any point in trying to argue with a troll, of course: everyone on the net has learnt that lesson the hard way. But in any case the responses to those questions would take a lot more space than LinkedIn allows: hence bringing the discussion back to here, where we do also have some means to keep the trolls at bay.

There’s a lot of work to do, to make sense of the Really Big Picture level and its implications for enterprise-architectures. I certainly don’t claim to have ‘all the answers’: the best I can offer is some of the perhaps more useful questions, and some themes and thought-experiments around which new ideas and new options might start to coalesce. And as always, the devil will be in the details – and there’ll be a lot of detail here. But it should be a start, at the least. And constructive comments and suggestions would be very welcome, too.

More later, anyway: Watch This Space?

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  1. [...] continues the series of posts that I’m doing about ‘The Really Big Picture‘ at a societal/economic level, in relation to [...]

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