Building an Enterprise Information Architecture

Ted Freeman, Vice President, ENSCO, Inc
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Building enterprise information architecture can be a daunting task. Over the years, business units and corporate groups prefer to hold on to siloed applications, spreadsheets, and custom applications, rather than take the time to design and implement true enterprise information architecture. Enterprise architecture (EA) is a term that’s expanded and contracted over the years such that finding a concise, working definition remains challenging.

Often times there are analogies between building information architecture and a house. You start off with an idea of how information should flow throughout your organization much like you start conjuring up ideas for how your dream house will look—the number of rooms, closet space, interesting alcoves, type of flooring, amenities, etc. Before your head explodes, you start working with an architect to transform the dream into reality. The architect starts drafting the blueprint and after updates, compromises, and several months you have the final blueprint to start construction.

It’s very similar to building out the information flow within your company. Whether you’re a disciple of the Zachman Framework, Spevak’s Enterprise Architecture Planning, The Enterprise Architecture Center of Excellence (EACOE), Bernard’s Enterprise Architecture EA3, or any host of other methodologies or approaches, the challenges can be overwhelming. You have an idea of how data should flow efficiently and effectively to achieve the best use. However, developing the blueprint to achieve that flow is not quite as straight forward.

  â€‹Design-build, also referred to as master-builder, is a construction process that’s been around for thousands of years  

There are typically three common outcomes to the information architecting process. You either over architect, under architect, or find the sweet spot. Needless to say, finding the sweet spot isn’t easy regardless of whichever methodology you settle on. However, if you’ve successfully exorcised the EA demon then feel free to share your experience with us. If not, continue and explore a practical approach to EA bliss that starts with a fundamental question–what are you trying to build?

The Taj Mahal, Winchester Mystery House or Nationals Park?

The best analogy I can give on enterprise architecture planning and building a house comes by comparing three architectural accomplishments. You can build the Taj Mahal, said to be the most perfect building in the world and renowned for its architectural splendor, the Winchester Mystery House, renowned for its architectural curiosities, or Nationals Park, The 41,000-plus seat ballpark, home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals, that was designed and built in just 23 months—a record for the construction of a major league ballpark.

The Taj Mahal–Over-Architecting your Enterprise Architecture

The Taj Mahal approach represents the overreach a lot of EA projects fall prey to. Information, by its very nature resists longevity. Its value is “in the moment” transposed against trend lines. Information and its time value are fluid and change with the circumstances that created them. Building architecture so complex and rigid diminishes its value. However perfect, an over architected architecture tends to become obsolete very quickly.

This is where enterprise architects get mired in the details our elegance of the solution. Far too often, precious time is spent attempting to cross every “T”, dot every “I”, and precisely match every artifact of your EA methodology. The project loses steam and collapses under its own inertia. In this case the architecture is over planned, never gains support or buy-in and eventually collapses.

The Winchester Mystery House–Under-Architecting your Enterprise Architecture

The counterpart to the Taj Mahal approach is the Winchester Mystery House. The Winchester Mystery House is a mansion in San Jose, California, that was once the personal residence of Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester. The Queen Anne style Victorian mansion is renowned for its size, architectural curiosities, and lack of any master building plan. Despite rumors of being haunted, the real oddity lies in its construction. Such oddities include:

• Doors and stairs that go nowhere (information that dead ends and provides no value)
• Windows overlooking other rooms (views of information that provide no value)
• A staircase that descends seven steps and then rises 11(everyone’s forgotten why these steps are in the process)

In this case the Enterprise Architect throws planning to the wind, creates no discernable direction or intent, builds everything as a one-off solution, and looks back at the multi-mile, multi-car wreck and wonders how it got that bad. There’s very little, if any, reusable infrastructure or applications, and you’re probably worse off than you started.

Washington Nationals Park—Finding the Sweet Spot

Then there’s the Washington Nationals Park approach. A joint venture between Clark Construction, Hunt Construction Group, and Smoot Construction Company, in Washington DC, resulted in the fastest construction of a project of this size and scope. They used a process of design-build to deliver 41,000-plus seat baseball stadium in 23 months.

Design-build, in this case, was used to design and build in parallel. The full design had not been completed as sections of the stadium were under construction. Needless to say there were conceptual ideas and drawings. Unlike the Taj Mahal example the detailed blueprint was more closely linked to the finished product thus greatly improving the time value. This is how we should be building our information architectures. Build what’s needed with the overriding objectives in mind.

Design-build, also referred to as master-builder, is a construction process that’s been around for thousands of years. It also dovetails nicely into some of the current agile techniques that allow flexibility and immediate use in small chunks. Define the key artifacts to build out, spend detail in the moment with other key artifacts in mind.

So what does this mean To Your Organization?

Enterprise information architecture is vital to how critical data assets are used in your organization. It can be overwhelming to find the methodology that works effectively but as your organization moves away from stovepipes in the business, you need to find a way to improve your chance of success.

Build small and steady along the critical artifacts and don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough. The time value of information should always override the perfect solution. Find the sweet spot, build as you go, and start providing the information infrastructure your company needs to grow to its potential.

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