Sometimes, when a buzzword catches on, the meaning of that word gets lost.  Too many people use the word in too many ways, and after a while, when you hear the word, you really don’t know what it means.  This has happened to the word “capabilities” in EA practice.

I live in the trenches.  I work with Enterprise Architects from multiple different companies on a regular basis.  One thing I’ve noticed is that there really is no single definition for the word “capability.”

  • Do people have capabilities?  If I can write great Java code, do I have a Java coding capability (or, up a level, Object Oriented programming capability)?
  • Do technologies have capabilities?  If I have an identity provider like OKTA or Active Directory, does this technology have the “manage geo-distributed user identity record” capability?
  • Do computing systems have capabilities?  If I have a CRM platform, does it have the “track sales opportunities” capability?
  • Do enterprises have capabilities?  Does the company I work for have the capability to “offer product via online marketplace?”

I hope this helps illustrate the problem.  If I want to have a discussion with my business stakeholders about how to know if their enterprise architecture is fit for purpose, I want to have a method for describing how I would illustrate the gaps or deficiencies in the organization’s architecture.  I want the word “capability” to mean something.

In the EBMM, I suggested different terms for these concepts, so that the term Capability has one meaning.

  • People have skills.  Job positions require skills.
  • Technologies and Systems have features.
  • Enterprises have Capabilities.

So let’s say someone comes to you and shows you a list of things.  At the top of the list is the word “capabilities.”  How can you tell which one of the items are actually a capability?

Not always simple.  Making this differentiation is more art than science.

My rule of thumb is this: can I describe the people (organizational needs), process (workflow needs), tools (feature needs), and information (data needs) that would be driven by that capability?  If I cannot, I probably don’t have a capability.

By Nick Malik

Former CIO and present Strategic Architect, Nick Malik is a Seattle based business and technology advisor with over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".

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