Using the ArchiMate® Standard to Streamline Internal Processes: A Conversation with Lourens Riemens

By The Open Group

Consistency in business oversight is increasingly important as organizations continue to incorporate digital strategies in how they work. Utilizing open standards is just one way that organizations can gain that consistency.

On October 24th, Lourens Riemens, an Enterprise Architect with the Netherlands Tax & Customs Administration, will be speaking at The Open Group Amsterdam event about how the agency has used ArchiMate®, an Open Group standard, for greater consistency, overview, and insight. We spoke to him in advance of the conference to get a preview.

Tell us about your role at the Netherlands Tax & Customs Administration…

I’m working for the Tax and Customs Administration, and we have a pretty large IT department. For many years, I was the lead architect for the Customs business domain so I did all types of architectural projects for Customs at all levels and scopes. That’s what I did until about four years ago, and then I moved over to a central architecture team. My work there was on enterprise-wide topics like Application Portfolio Management, Rationalization, Building Blocks, architecture standards, etc. As part of that role, I was involved in the overview and insight project that I’ll be presenting on in Amsterdam. At the beginning of this year, I moved back to Customs but I still am involved in the overview and insight project. Today, I can combine the knowledge of both worlds in my daily work.

How long has the organization been using Enterprise Architecture and what do they use it for?

We were one of the early adopters of architectural work in the mid-1990s. We were already working on architecture and Project Start Architecture. At an early stage it was already decided that projects would be guided by architectures and architecture descriptions. This was in 1997 or 1998. We started with architecture on the project level more or less independent from the application development, infrastructure and business point of view. Later on, architecture was extended to a more strategic/tactical level, and it was more used for coherence and planning purposes for entire business or technology domains.

Was that a government mandate or a decision that the Tax & Customs Administration made?

It was a decision of the agency. It wasn’t mandatory for government agencies at that time. Someone with ideas about it started it and it grew and Customs was a domain where it worked. Customs is a relatively small business domain with good cooperation between business and IT people, which made it easy to try out a lot of things.

How does the agency use Enterprise Architecture today?

That’s actually changing now—we are moving into a more Agile way of working so there is a lot of change in how much architecture work we are doing in advance and how much architecture we do along the way.

The way of working was that it started small and it grew up so that we did everything under architecture. Now we try to do architecture on the things where it has the most benefit and where it adds value. Not every decision is architecture relevant, so we’ve moved away from it a bit. It was also maybe too much an internal thing using architecture to guide a project. Now it’s how to use architecture to facilitate the top management in making the right decisions and to guide teams just enough in developing solutions. We have to provide everyone with good overview and insight to make and motivate better decisions.

How are you working in Agile development as a part of the overall architecture for projects?

We have a domain level architecture that is the baseline of all the things we have, so we have a view of what’s in place today—processes, applications and infrastructure. We write down solution outlines on changes. They can be big or small, but always a business relevant topic. So it can be new legislation or improving the business process and the underlying IT or whatever. What we try to do is really different because we work at the same pace as the Agile teams. They have periods of 10 or 12 weeks where they do their work, and we also do the architecture preparation in the same rhythm so we always have just enough architecture in place so they can go on with development. That’s quite different from the past where we had an idea and an assignment and we wrote down the business case, and a high-level design, and low-level design. Sometimes it was one or two years of preparation for things. We can’t afford 1-2 years today. We maybe have 10-12 weeks for upfront architecture, and a part of the work is already done together with the agile teams in sprint refinements. But it really helps if there’s a baseline in place so we can very quickly determine the impact of those changes. Because we know the process and what the IT is, how good it is, what’s below it, what infrastructure is there.

The other thing we try to do is work with applications patterns with standard solutions for standard problems. Similar applications will be constructed in the same way with the same building blocks and infrastructure, so we can skip a lot of discussion on how to construct something because we have a pattern for it. We architect at a higher level—more on the domain level and on the type of solution and less on the individual solution. We decide what kind of solution we want to make and standardize on patterns.

What led you to look to the ArchiMate language as a tool for modeling? Was it tied to a particular project?

Tax and Customs was in fact involved in the development of the ArchiMate language. I was involved in the very first project with Marc Lankhorst and the guys who setup the standard. We provided cases and best practices that they used to determine the kind of views and concepts that could be in the language. We were closely involved with the guys who created the language before it was an open standard. We’ve been using the ArchiMate language for over 10 years now.

It wasn’t even a consideration to do it or not—it was obvious we would. Most years we’ve used the Archimate language and the tools for drawing architecture diagrams, but over the past few years we used it more as the base of architectural information. The version of the truth should be in the architecture repository, and not just in drawings, documents, spreadsheets and people’s heads. Most of the information was available, but it was difficult to get the right answers fast. You always had to ask a lot of people if you wanted to answer a question that cut across several domains.

What are you using the ArchiMate language for? What does it allow you to do that you weren’t able to do without it?

We use it as the architectural language and use a tool to support architects in using it. The language helps us in standardizing concepts, diagrams and views. This makes it easier to understand each other’s models, to compare different domains and to reuse solutions. The ArchiMate standard helps because it’s rich enough to model the layers and business applications with one language for all things relevant to the architecture.

Because we can standardize on concepts, we can also use the tool to do automatic validation of the modeling—a check lets us comply with modeling rules—we run that check every week. You can see how well you’ve modeled the architecture. You still can model a wrong solution, but at least we can validate that the right concepts have been used.

And we can use the ArchiMate language to combine business, applications and technology with motivation and implementation. This gives a lot of insights for impact analysis, roadmaps, and so on. For example, we had to make roadmaps to show what we were doing to get rid of legacy problems. We were able to provide a standard for roadmaps, so everyone can do it the same way. In the past, everyone would make their own schemes.

Why should organizations look to the ArchiMate standard for their projects?

One reason—it’s already there. It’s widely used and it’s proven that it works. You don’t have to find out all concepts and relations —you can use the language or a subset of it. Sometimes it’s a complication, that’s the same with every standard language, but you can communicate and use it more and more over time. Almost everyone in the Netherlands practicing architecture uses the ArchiMate language. Because of its widespread use, there is also good tool support. There are lots of vendors of tools that support the ArchiMate standard today.

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