“We are different! But are we really different?”

Dec 19, 2014
Written by
Remco Blom
Remco Blom

“We are different! But are we really different?”

“Many stakeholders consider their organization as unique.” Depending on the level of abstraction you take as viewpoint, you can argue this statement is either right or wrong. It is interesting from an enterprise architecture perspective to understand why stakeholders stress this uniqueness and what are the benefits of understanding where the organization really is different from others. Recently there was a very successful seminar on Enterprise Architecture in Healthcare at BiZZdesign’s Dutch Amersfoort office. Therefore we use the example of the healthcare industry to illustrate things.

Generic vs specific
An architect in organization has two important challenges (among others):

Apply generic architecture (and solutions) to specific problems.

  1. Design specific solutions and architectures in a generic way so that these are useful in future situations. This is much harder, both conceptually as in practice. Are project executives willing to invest extra to make solutions reusable?
  2. This is also explained in the Enterprise Continuum that is part of the TOGAF standard.

TOGAF Enterprise Continuum

The more generic the architecture elements are, the more reusable they will be in the future. But also sourcing it, maintaining it and integrating it will be easier in most cases.

So why not work with one standard, collaboratively designed, selected, hosted, etc. hospital application in all hospitals in the country?

Understanding why and where you are unique
Of course a bank is different than a hospital. One can say that when the products and services differ, the processes, information flows an application landscape differ. At the “bottom” of the stack, generic technology like databases and connectivity might very well be similar.

Even when organizations have the same products, the processes to create these might differ. Even when the processes are standardizes, the information flows differ. And even if a set or organizations succeeds in harmonizing this, the application landscape differ. This does not seem to be logic, or at least not cheap… especially in non-competing environments like government. In government we see that reference architecture are very well spread compared to other verticals. E.g. in Australia, The Netherlands and UK (pdf).

But even then, culture, the ambition for independence, history, organization structure and most of all strategy causes differences between organizations in the same industry. The unique combination and interaction between the capabilities in your organization makes every organization unique, but this does not help in our architectural work.

There are two steps in making very clear where you want to differentiate:

Create a capability model in which you present on a high level what it is that your organization does.
Decide per capability whether your organization wants to “innovate”, “differentiate”, or consider this capability less differentiating.

Capability Map

I describe this approach under point 3 in my earlier blog post on “Business Architecture in the New Normal”. This approach helps to give insight on the primary and secondary capabilities and fosters discussions on strategy implementation and eventually sourcing.

Take advantage of the similarities
Most architectural elements, from the applications down, will be relatively generic. Some aspects of the business and application architecture can be inspired by other industries. Finance, HR, procurement, etc. are typical examples, but also CRM, planning and image storage can be (partly) inspired on how other business do this.

Industry specific process- and data models can be provided by service providers. Within the healthcare industry, EMR/EHR providers deliver out-of-the-box process architecture, that can be a starting point for your future architecture.

What makes a hospital different from other organizations
Hospitals have a unique set of processes, compared to business that have less direct impact on life and dead. Some examples:

  • Humans are both “object” and “subjects”. Some of the business behavior is done by patients/clients and many patients undergo the business behavior. This is fundamentally different than a steel factory or a bank.
  • Closing the medication loop is a process that is unique for healthcare institutions, with its own set of unique requirements.
  • Governance structure is different in every healthcare institute. Some have self-employed doctors, others employ the doctors. Some are part of a university or a larger healthcare group, other are independent. Care and cure have a different approach and “heartbeat” in their business.

Every enterprise architecture is custom made
One can reuse reference models to speed up architectural work. One should take into account the history, culture and strategy of the organization you are active in. The process of creating awareness and get buy-in on the architecture should be in place in all cases.