"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." – Thoreau

I had the occasion today to have a long chat with a senior architect about Enterprise Architecture.  The conversation turned to the “underlying problem” that EA is supposed to solve.  In other words, if we use terms like “alignment” or “simplification,” what is the problem that causes misalignment and complexity? 

To paraphrase Thoreau, I asked “what is the root of the evil we are striking at?”

The answer was simple, and glaringly obvious.  Communication. 

To whit:

  • When a leader communicates, no one under that leader wants to admit that they cannot (or did not) completely understand every word. 
  • When a project is planned, few people want to admit that the project is (or will be) incapable of producing the desired effect.  This is especially true if their leader is the one who thought the project up.

As long as communication is flowing in one direction, from a leader to his direct report, then it is easy for the next person down the line to “drift” a little, performing work that may or may not produce the result that the leader expected.  Such a system needs to be controlled in order to prevent that drift.

It would be like manufacturing a product on an assembly line without ever checking, along the way, that the intermediate parts are meeting quality control checks.  When a part consistently fails a quality control check, you would go back up the line to find the systemic causes of the defect, fix the root cause, verify the result, and continue with manufacturing.  This “quality feedback loop” is essential to producing a good product on a consistent basis by building quality into a product rather than trying to insert quality through massive inspection regimens.

The assembly line that EA addresses is the line that starts at strategy and ends at execution.

There is no question that being able to execute on good strategies is a required competency of a successful company.  Execution is everything.  And what is the mechanism that controls the quality of that execution, reducing defects and building quality into it along the way?  Enterprise Architecture.

I’m going to jump to another metaphor here… this one is more visual.  This is the metaphor that was going through my head during the conversation. 

The chain metaphor



A company can operate entirely without enterprise architecture, just as you can build a chain composed entirely of “open” (or incomplete) links (left). 

Such a chain will hold some weight, and it may lighter than a full chain.  Potentially such a chain may be inexpensive to create.  Sounds compelling, doesn’t it?

But look at the real world.  How many “open link” chains have you actually seen?  Why is that?

A chain of open links cannot absorb changes easily.  It is weak and frail.  A sudden change in the weight bearing load, or a strong push in one direction or another, and the chain fails. 

For this reason, chains have closed links (right).  Stronger, responsive to change, easier to handle.



Let’s apply this metaphor to the way a business operates.  The chain in question is the chain of planning activities that starts with the formulation of strategies and culminates in a series of key changes in the way a business operates.  The desired outcome of these changes, all summed up, is the realization of that business strategy. 




Enterprise Architecture is in the unique position of addressing these “open” links by creating a quality feedback loop at every step of the way.  Using Enterprise Architecture, Business Architecture, and Solution Architecture, the chain becomes stronger, more flexible, and less expensive to own.




This role of Enterprise Architecture is interesting, and completely distinct from that of other roles in the company.  Just as a developer who tests his own code is prone to bugs, and a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, a business executive who both articulates strategy and tries to rationalize the subsequent goa
ls is betting against himself.

Enterprise architecture does not create the strategy.  But it is essential for helping to insure that execution follows effectively from it.

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. Which road do I take? she asked. Where do you want to go? was his response. I don’t know, Alice answered. Then, said the cat, it doesn’t matter.—Lewis Carroll

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".

4 thoughts on “Doing Business without EA is like building a chain of “open” links”
  1. I think this item is right on the money. EA is fundamentally about communication, and in large organisations collaboration. It requires knowledge management with precise semantics – it is the precision of the semantics that ensure the clear and explicit communication of complex networks (or chains).

  2. Hi Nick,

    Once again a very well presented post. I agree wholeheartedly with your metaphor and most importantly business will be able to relate to it. Keep them coming!

  3. Nice. 🙂

    There's also an exact parallel here with open-loop versus closed-loop in systems-theory or control-theory: open-loop can run faster because it assumes that everything's fine, but is also a risk (and increasing risk over time) because of those same assumptions. Closed-loop asserts that we cannot safely make any such assumptions, and hence insists on one or more closed feedback loops to check that everything is going okay.

    Hence some other key roles for EA:

    – quality-management (which also use open-loop versus closed-loop)

    – risk/opportunity management (which again requires feedback-loops to work well)

    – strategic/tactical adaptation to changes in ecosystem

    Communication is core to all of these, and EA does assist in communication in these, but I'm not sure I would agree that communication _as such_ is 'the reason' for EA.

  4. Hi Nick,

    The metaphor applies quite well to any organisation with a mature IT investment. What I find key to the successful adoption of EA practices is the inherent 'culture' of the organisation towards EA. Maturity in leadership at the executive level plays an important role.

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