The Roles of Enterprise Architects in Innovation – Part 1

Dec 11, 2019
Written by
Marc Lankhorst
Marc Lankhorst
Matthijs Scholten
Matthijs Scholten

The Roles of Enterprise Architects in Innovation – Part 1

Earlier this year, we published a blog about how enterprise architects can contribute to innovation. In this blog series, we want to further explore the different roles enterprise architects can play in innovation in their organization. In general, we see an increasing need for and contribution of an architectural perspective on innovation. That’s because most large organizations have become pretty complex beasts and innovating there is not always easy. Lots of moving parts need to be coordinated but not many people have the necessary overview. This is typically where enterprise architecture can add value.

We see three key roles for architects in innovation:

  1. Architecting for innovation: To make it easier to innovate, an enterprise’s complexity needs to be kept in check. Otherwise, if everything is connected to everything else, change becomes nearly impossible. Architects can create room for innovation by reducing this complexity and facilitating change. This is the inside-out perspective that architects are most familiar with.
  2. Coordinating innovation: When there are many innovative ideas and initiatives, you need to coordinate and prioritize investments. Where does the organization want to go and to what degree are these initiatives aligned with desired business outcomes? This offers an outside-in perspective on innovation.
  3. Initiating innovation: Enterprise architects have a key position in being able to connect business and technology trends from the environment to the internal structures of the enterprise. This outside-out perspective helps the organization spot, evaluate and respond to opportunities and trends in their wider ecosystem.

In this blog series, we will explore these three roles, starting with the first.

Architecting for innovation

Most established organizations have grown organically over the years, adding departments, functions and systems in a piecemeal manner without thinking about the larger impact of these additions.

Moreover, even if there was a sound and mature architecture practice involved in the evolution of the enterprise, the architectural choices of the past may no longer be adequate in present days, and especially as the enterprise is trying to move forward into the future. For example, a common architecture principle is “reuse before buy before build”: rather than creating something new, we need to reuse what we already have, because duplication of functionality is needlessly expensive, leads to data inconsistencies, et cetera. Makes sense, right? Well, maybe not always.

Applying this principle has often led to large, centralized systems that try to be everything to everyone. Those systems often started out small. Then a new requirement came in that was perhaps covered for 80% by that system but required 20% new functionality. Much better to extend the existing system a little than to buy something else, right? Let’s just switch on this extra module from the vendor, or add another table to the database… But every extension becomes gradually more difficult, since you have to consider the impact on the entire system.

So we need to do away with these monoliths. Let’s introduce service orientation and do everything with microservices: Fine-grained, light-weight, loosely-coupled functional elements with clear, standards-based interconnections. Let’s also organize our agile ‘two pizza’ teams around those services and have them innovate locally. That will make life much easier. Well, maybe not always…

All too often, microservice landscapes devolve into a similarly complicated mess of dependencies, connecting everything to everything else. Formerly, this mess may have been hidden inside the belly of your big legacy system. That we can now see it more clearly is surely progress, but again, change becomes progressively more difficult because of all the interdependencies we have introduced.

Moreover, ensuring data consistency across such a web of services is no easy task. Performance may become an issue because of the network communication between all these services. And if every team is free to choose their own technology stack (as some agile proponents want to have it), you can imagine the resulting complexity and risk for the enterprise. Finally, how do you know that what these individual teams have decided really contributes to desirable business outcomes for the enterprise as a whole?

Once you consider these aspects, it becomes obvious that a solid architecture is as relevant as ever if you want to innovate and keep innovating. Classical principles around coupling and cohesion of systems still apply. From their ‘big picture’ perspective, architects can help decide where to integrate or separate the parts of your business and IT landscape. From a business level downwards, thinking about autonomous business capabilities helps you partition your architecture in independently evolving and innovating parts. Approaches like pace layering let you understand and guide the different speeds of change in the various parts of your landscape.

Towards architecting for innovation

Concepts like the above not only help in reducing complexity and thereby enhancing flexibility and agility, but also in explicitly shaping space for innovation. Where could you create room for exploration and uncover potential business value, without introducing undue operational or financial risk? And there is much more in the toolbox of the architect that helps their organizations foster innovation and change. We believe that successful corporate innovation efforts are supported by smart, enterprise-wide insights and collaboration. For example:

  • Trendspotting & Ideation: Innovation Profiling – use this technique to monitor technology trends and put them into business context. Below is an example using ArchiMate concepts, showing business capabilities, internal sponsors and exports, and related innovation ideas to (in this case) the Internet of Things trend for our example energy company ArchiPower. This was modeled as a driver, and the content of the view below was generated from the relationships between the model elements.Internet of Things
  • Trendspotting & Ideation: Innovation Workflows – achieve more productive ideation processes by assigning a scope to ideas that (any) employees might have. The concept here is that ideas are actually connected to the organization and its constituents.
  • Innovation Analysis: Innovation Readiness Assessment – use this metric to identify the areas in your business (e.g. using a capability map) that need more room for innovation or areas that display. Below you can see a such a capability heatmap, showing from orange to green the level of innovation readiness of ArchiPower’s capabilities. You can notice, for instance, that the Legal, Regulatory Affairs, Risk & Compliance, and Finance capabilities are not very innovation-ready.Innovation Analysis
  • Innovation Decisions: Innovation Scenarios – create innovation scenarios to show the cost/benefit trade-offs to be made for a selection of innovation initiatives that are moving towards execution. An example is shown below, showing various aspects of the scenarios and some gauges used for assessing them.Innovation Decisions: Innovation Scenarios

Innovation Blueprint: from Idea to Business

You do need to realize, though, that the days of ‘big design up-front’ are over. Enterprise architects can no longer design a fixed target state far into the future. The world around us just changes too fast and our stakeholders’ needs change accordingly. Rather, by providing just-enough, just-in-time decisions and guidance in the form of ‘intentional architecture’, architects can help organizations stay flexible and innovative.

In the next blog post in this series, we will look at the second role of architects in innovation: coordination. Stay tuned!