Google+, spiral galaxies and Louisa’s bright idea

By Stuart Boardman, Getronics

Even a social media lightweight like me could hardly avoid getting caught up in the Google+ hype. It got me thinking about the rate and unpredictability of change in the web world, and the effect on large enterprises of phenomena originating in the consumer and small business market.

The concept of the enterprise is experiencing a change – maybe a radical one. The role of technology is also changing (not for the first time).  New business models are developing which, whilst not technological in nature, would never have been thought of without the technology developments of the last few years. Other business models, around for a bit longer and not technological in nature are pushing technology in a different direction. Business models themselves are subject to increasingly frequent and not always predictable change. What does this mean for the practice of enterprise architecture?

Back to Google+. A few years ago, when Web 2.0 was the buzzword and everyone conveniently forgot that the web actually started out as a vehicle for user-generated content and collaboration (sorry, had to get that off my chest), there was quite a battery of social media providers all with their own specializations: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Flickr and a whole bunch of sites for gamers and metal fans, etc. In Holland, where I live, we had our own, very successful variant on Facebook. Had. In the period since then there’s been increasing consolidation with Facebook developing an astonishing hegemony. I’ll admit that I assumed that’s how it would stay until a new Zuckerberg came up with a totally new game changer. But now here comes Google with a new spin on a familiar story and they look set to chew a big chunk out of the market. Perhaps even the enterprise market.

What’s this have to do with enterprises? Well, the fact is that everyone in the enterprise is out there exchanging ideas via Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook and Google+ (and whatever specialized sites they might use) and they’re even using those media to tell the rest of the enterprise that they published something internally – because otherwise no one will notice. And then there’s co-creation, which is becoming increasingly common – even in large enterprises. So like it or not, the enterprise is being irreversibly extended out into the blogosphere. And that means that the enterprise is far more exposed to the trends and rapid shifts in the world outside its own boundaries than it has ever been before.

In the meantime, a lot of other stuff has been changing for the enterprise. Extended Enterprise, the idea that an enterprise’s business processes (some of them) are performed by third parties, who themselves are part of a broad value network, is pretty much established fact for many large and medium-sized organizations. And there are unexpected new business models emerging. Think about app stores. I can’t see inside Steve Jobs’ head but I suspect the app store was developed to support the iPhone – not the other way around. Just like iTunes was developed to support the iPod. But now everyone has app stores (even if Apple doesn’t want them to use the name). The end result of all this has been to create a whole new market, where new entrepreneurs can develop low-cost software and sell it in bulk across multiple platforms and where those platforms could hardly exist without the app developers. I’m even using an iPhone app (also available on Android) to drive my domestic hi-fi system (from a very respectable English high end designer – not some uber-nerd). The app strengthens the business case for the equipment and makes money for the developer. The app didn’t come with the equipment; I bought it at the app store. App stores themselves are new value propositions for their owners (Apple, etc). In some ways we could regard this as a commercial instantiation of the old Virtual Enterprise idea – an “enterprise” consisting of a loosely coupled, shifting alliance of unrelated legal entities. I like this recent quote from Verna Allee (@vernaallee): “Business models often assume the world revolves around our organization when we really revolve in spiral galaxy ecosystems”. Louisa Leontiades (@MoneyDecisions) is launching a web based, social media driven consultancy, which provides a sort of app store where independent experts can sell tools and frameworks (and yes, get consultancy deals too). Brilliant. And of course all this represents a very scattered field of players, business models and solutions.

How are these developments reflected in Enterprise Architecture? In particular what is the effect on architecture vision and the idea of a target state?  I came across another interesting discussion recently. Robert Phipps (@robert_phipps) suggested in a discussion with Tom Graves (@tetradian) that an enterprise consists of many vectors, each with its own direction and velocity and each potentially colliding with and therefore affecting the direction and velocity of the others. Sounds pretty abstract but if you accept the metaphor you can see that the target state is going to be different depending on how the various collisions work out. In a “traditional” enterprise, the power relationships between the various vectors is pretty stable and the influence of external factors limited to macro-economic effects. The metaphor is still valid but the scale of the problem much smaller (less entropy). If what I wrote above is correct, there aren’t too many “traditional” enterprises these days.  Tom took the metaphor a bit further and made reference to Quantum theory. That’s also interesting, because it focuses on a probabilistic situation. Architecting for uncertainty. Welcome to the real world. That doesn’t mean there is no value in a target. You have to have some idea what you want to achieve based on what you know now. It just doesn’t need to be too prescriptive. Or put another way, it needs not to be too sensitive to unpredictability. Everything (not just the technology) is likely to have changed before you get there. It certainly increases the relative importance of the first steps on the road to that target. The less particle/vector collisions take place within one step, the more chance of achieving something useful. After each step we re-evaluate both target and roadmap. Iterate. Agile EA. And guess what? This is what we’re supposed to do anyway – design for change, constant delivery of value. No “wait a year and we’ll have something for you”. So if we’ve not been doing that, we’ve not been doing what the enterprise needed from us. All that’s changed is that we will become increasingly irrelevant, if we don’t do it.

Stuart Boardman is a Senior Business Consultant with Getronics Consulting 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.