Does IT mean Information Technology? Or is it Just a Department?

By Stuart Boardman, KPN

Some Enterprise Architects I greatly respect frequently stress the point that EA is not just or even primarily about IT. Some others go as far as to argue that it’s nothing to do with IT at all (the same people appear to think that this applies to all technology). At the other extreme, people, possibly unaware of these discussions, appear to believe that it’s only about IT. The problem with both extremes is that, when it comes down to it they are talking about the role of an organization’s own IT department rather than the role of information technology in business. The result is that IT is perceived as purely a support function (i.e. nothing more than the automation of traditional business activities). That works well for both parties, because it’s then easy to isolate it and make it either a universe in itself or an uninteresting minor galaxy.

None of this would be so terrible, were it not for the fact that it does have an effect on those of us not populating the extremes. We find ourselves talking about “business-IT alignment”, which is a pretty clear statement that IT isn’t business. We treat Business Architecture as a set of BPM requirements for IT rather than being about what the business of the enterprise is. And this can lead to a total misconception of the role of information technology in the enterprise. This kind of disconnect has become more critical due to the developments of the last 10 or so years.

Some organizations have always had (information) technology as core business. Think of communications service providers. And then think how their business has changed in the last decade. Converged communications is not (anymore) marketing jargon. It’s how things are. So the boundary between “traditional” IT and “traditional” communications has completely dissolved. Other organizations have for a very long time used information technology as a differentiator in how they do their business – and one man’s differentiator rapidly becomes everyone’s standard – and therefore business critical. I first came across this in the pharmaceutical industry in the mid-1970s. Even back then all this was happening without the involvement of the “EDP” (IT) department, just as business today so often reaches for the Cloud behind IT’s back. Since the beginning of the commercial Internet era (let’s call that 1997) we’ve seen the rise of organizations for whom information technology is the only way they do business. And the way they do that is their differentiator. So there simply is no IT department that isn’t part of the business. And for some of them (e.g. Amazon) information technology has become their core business – not the manufacturing and sale of machines that happen to be computers, but the sale of operational information technology services. And Facebook?

Now, over the last few years we see the emergence of organizations (commercial and non-commercial) whose existence is actually built around the information technology services delivered by the previous new generation. Some are small, non-hierachical organizations often based on semi-formal networks of people and other organizations with a mutual interest in the success of the network. Doing things over the internet is not an optional delivery channel for these organizations. It defines their business model. Many of these people are considerably more geeky than I am. So the current generation of information technology has become very much part of the business of the new generation of businesses. And a great deal of that technology is not delivered by an in-house IT department.

This is not an argument for a new form of IT centrism but it is an argument for understanding information technology as a component of the business (in general). Instead of asking how IT supports the business (i.e. alignment), we need to be examining in what ways IT is/can/should be part of the business.

Anthony Draffin (@adraffin) pointed me to an article by Gartner analyst John Mahoney in the Australian ITNews, “The CIO’s expanding digital universe,” which makes a similar case to what I’ve written above. One of things he suggests is that the CIO should move out of his/her comfort zone and take responsibility for all IT, regardless of who owns or delivers it. Some people will probably find the hairs on the back of their neck rising at such a suggestion. It is, however, at least arguable that making the CIO take responsibility for stuff s/he doesn’t control would create such a seismic shift that old patterns would tend to break down. That in turn might make it easier for enterprise architects to establish goals, which are not IT-centric. I choose not to voice an opinion at this stage, as it’s pretty academic. I’m concerned about the more direct relevance to EA.

So what is the relevance? What might it mean for the practice of EA? Well, I’m not proposing any radical change in our methods. In fact I may not be proposing any change at all in those methods.

As with a number of things I’ve blogged about over the last few months, I think what’s critical and needs to change is how we think about things — our vision of what we produce using those methods, which may also perhaps influence our view of the end goal. Just as need to broaden our view of what comprises “the enterprise,” so we also need to understand the new ways in which enterprises (may) work. If we can understand IT (where appropriate) as part of the business of the enterprise, then we are automatically addressing alignment and are neither elevating IT architecture to the ultimate goal of EA nor treating it as a marginally relevant utility. It could be that in the process we discover areas where our methods need to be fleshed out – or simply to incorporate/interoperate with other existing methods for those areas. It would be interesting to know what other people think.

Getting away from IT-centrism will help us do a better job of modeling that large part of EA, which has nothing to do with IT. That in turn should improve the quality and completeness of our Enterprise IT architecture. And getting away from “IT is an irrelevance” may well improve the quality and agility of how the enterprise does its business.

Enterprise Architecture is a subject that will be discussed in depth during both The Open Group Conference, Taipei, Oct. 24-26; and The Open Group Conference, San Francisco, Jan. 30-Feb. 3, 2012. Join us for standards and case studies on Enterprise Architecture, Cloud Computing, Security and more, presented by preeminent thought leaders in the industry.

Stuart Boardman is a Senior Business Consultant with KPN where he co-leads the Enterprise Architecture practice as well as the Cloud Computing solutions group. He is co-lead of The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group’s Security for the Cloud and SOA project and a founding member of both The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group and The Open Group SOA Work Group. Stuart is the author of publications by the Information Security Platform (PvIB) in The Netherlands and of his previous employer, CGI. He is a frequent speaker at conferences on the topics of Cloud, SOA, and Identity. 

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