OK… I’ll say it.  The whole idea of an Architecture Review Board may be wrong-headed.  That officially puts me at odds with industry standards like CobiT, ongoing practices in IT architecture, and a litany of senior leaders that I respect and admire.  So, why say it?  I have my reasons, which I will share here.

CobiT recommends an ARB?  Really?

The  CobiT governance framework requires that an IT team should create an IT Architecture board.  (PO3.5).  In addition, CobiT suggests that an IT division should create an IT Strategy Committee at the board level (PO4.2) and an IT Steering committee (PO4.3).  So what, you ask?

The first thing to note about these recommendations is that CobiT doesn’t normally answer the question “How.”  CobiT is a measurement and controls framework.  It sets a framework for defining and measuring performance.  Most of the advice is focused on “what” to look for, and not “how” to do it.  (There are a couple of other directive suggestions as well, but I’m focusing on these).

Yet, CobiT recommends three boards to exist in a governance model for IT.  Specifically, these three boards. 

But what is wrong with an ARB?

I have been a supporter of ARBs for years.  I led the charge to set up the IT ARB in MSIT and successfully got it up and running.  I’m involved in helping to set up a governance framework right now as we reorganize our IT division.  So why would I suggest that the ARB should be killed?

Because it is an Architecture board.  Architecture is not special.  Architecture is ONE of the many constraints that a project has to be aligned with.  Projects and Services have to deliver their value in a timely, secure, compliant, and cost effective manner.  Architecture has a voice in making that promise real.  But if we put architecture into an architecture board, and separate it from the “IT Steering Committee” which prioritizes the investments across IT, sets scope, approves budgets, and oversees delivery, then we are setting architecture up for failure.

Power follows the golden rule: the guy with the gold makes the rules.  If the IT Steering committee (to use the CobiT term) has the purse strings, then architecture, by definition, has no power.  If the ARB says “change your scope to address this architectural requirement,” they have to add the phrase “pretty please” at the end of the request.

So what should we do instead of an ARB?

The replacement: The IT Governance Board

I’m suggesting a different kind of model, based on the idea of an IT Governance Board.  The IT Governance Board is chaired by the CIO, like the IT Steering committee, but is a balanced board containing one person who represents each of the core areas of governance: Strategic Alignment, Value Delivery, Resource Management, Risk Management, and Performance Measurement.  Under the IT Governance Board are two, or three, or four, “working committees” that review program concerns from any of a number of perspectives.  Those perspectives are aligned to IT Goals, so the number of working committees will vary from one organization to the next.

The key here is that escalation to the “IT Governance Board” means a simultaneous review of the project by any number of working committees, but the decisions are ALL made at the IT Governance Board level.  The ARB decides nothing.  It recommends.  (that’s normal).  But the IT Steering committee goes away as well, to be replaced by a IT Steering committee that also decides nothing.  It recommends.  Both of these former boards become working committees.  You can also have a Security and Risk committee, and even a Customer Experience committee.  You can have as many as you need, because Escalation to One is Escalation to All.

The IT Governance board is not the same as the CIO and his or her direct reports.  Typically IT functions can be organized into many different structures.  Some are functional (a development leader, an operations leader, an engagement leader, a support leader, etc.).  Others are business relationship focused (with a leader supporting one area of the business and another leader supporting a different area of the business, etc.).  In MSIT, it is process focused (with each leader supporting a section of the value chain).  Regardless, it would be a rare CIO who could afford to set up his leadership team to follow the exact same structure as needed to create a balanced governance model.

In fact, the CIO doesn’t have to actually sit on the IT Governance board.  It is quite possible for this board to be a series of delegates, one for each of the core governance areas, that are trusted by the CIO and his or her leadership team. 

Decisions by the IT Governance board can, of course, be escalated for review (and override) by a steering committee that is business-led.  CobiT calls this the IT Strategy Committee and that board is chaired by the CEO with the CIO responsible.  That effectively SKIPS the CIO’s own leadership team when making governance decisions.

And that is valuable because, honestly, business benefits from architecture.  IT often doesn’t.

So let’s consider the idea that maybe, just maybe, the whole idea of an ARB is flawed.  Architecture is a cross-cutting concern.  It exists in all areas.  But when the final decision is made, it should be made by a balanced board that cares about each of the areas that architecture impacts… not in a fight between the guys with the vision and the guys with the money.  Money will win, every time.

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 “Should We Kill The Architecture Review Board?”
  1. Nick,

    Great topic for a debate. However, you missed on a key dimension: intent of ARBs. The focus of ARB is on “Architecture” (what, and how) while the focus of  IT Governance Board, as you rightly mentioned is on core areas of governance: Strategic Alignment, Value Delivery, Resource Management, Risk Management, and Performance Measurement.

    There is value in doing a deep-dive review of the Architecture of proposed “solution” that would get diluted if done with the IT Governance Board

  2. Hi Mohan,

    The ARB becomes a working committee of the IT Governance Board.  That means you still have architecture-specific review.  I, too, am worried about having unqualified people do a review of architecture.  Note that, in CobiT, resource management is mostly made up of architectural concerns as well as people skills (closely related).  Therefore, the ARB can be a working committee under the Resource Management member.

    Note that a working committee is chaired by a member of the IT Governance Board, but it can contain as many specialists in a field as is needed.  In fact, you'd expect it to.  

    The balance comes NOT from the fact that the ARB makes no decisions… they rarely do.  The balance comes from two things: 1) the fact that the IT Steering committee makes no decisions either, so they have no special powers to override the ARB, and 2) the fact that all reviews are simultaneous.  This means that a program coming to the ARB MUST ALSO set up a review with the IT Steering working group to discuss the situation in parallel, as well as any other working groups that are likely to be necessary.

    The distinction is balance.

  3. COBIT 4.1’s PO3.5, PO4.2, and PO4.3 do in fact discuss the establishment of an architecture review board (ARB).  COBIT 5 addresses this topic in APO01.01, “Define the organizational structure.”  In APO01.01, COBIT 5 recommends establishing an internal organization structure that reflects business needs and IT priorities.  It does not prescribe the establishment of an ARB.  The output, or work product, of APO01.01 is three-fold: definition of organizational structure and functions, organizational operational guidelines, and communication ground rules.  These outputs then get passed on to APO03.02 (Define reference architecture) that more clearly defines the architecture (without mention of any “requirement” to establish an ARB).  Your description of an IT governance board is similar to what APO01.01 suggests.

    Robert E Stroud

  4. @Robert

    Thank you very much for your in-depth knowledge of COBIT 5 and your willingness to share.  I will investigate further.  

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