Enterprise Architecture: The Godfather of Buzzwords (and Why it Still Matters)
Buzzwords.Trends.You know them.You've seen them.You've heard them.

Big Data. The Internet of Things. The Customer Experience. I could go on, but I probably don’t need to.We’ve fallen so in love with the idea of fast-moving technology trends that we've reclaimed the concept from its place as noun and returned it -- obnoxiously -- (see “trending”) into a verb that now gets used in contexts from sports to entertainment.

The temptation, of course, is to dismiss these trends and buzzwords as simply marketing fluff, stuff and nonsense, sound and fury that’s 75 percent talk and 25 percent substance.Certainly the very nature of enterprise IT makes it a place where change has traditionally been embraced slowly, a place where “what’s trending” goes to be slowly chewed up and quietly digested over time.And that digestion’s not always been smooth, either.

But just when you think that you’re out, they pull you back in.

The times are changing.While that darling trend of 2012 -- the “Consumerization of IT” -- may not yet be reflected in your spellchecker (try it and see) it’s definitely had a lot to say about the pace of change.Mobile devices, BYOD and of course, the all-encompassing cloud have all pushed their way into the party and now change really is something that happens more and more often, more and more effectively.

How on earth did we get here?One former trend in particular, one buzzword from the late 1990s, rings true as a harbinger of all we've come to expect in modern enterprise IT.

Enterprise Architecture.

A Trend with Lasting Impact

In 2014, the words “enterprise architecture” (EA) have come to mean a lot of things.I've seen people use them to refer to a reference diagram, an infrastructure plan or an approach to governance. “Enterprise Architect” might be one of the more open-ended job titles out there today.But when Enterprise Architecture first emerged as a discipline -- and where it is practiced in its truest form today -- it was the application of a disciplined, strategic approach to the interaction of people, process and technology and their roles in the enterprise.

It was the sort of strategic planning that perhaps wasn't necessary when everything was done on mainframes, but became essential as workloads and applications splintered into various architectures and methods of delivery.Of course, enterprise architecture didn't just enable the enterprise; it also helped to define the enterprise as we know it.

Using an architect’s approach of logical models, patterns -- essentially blueprints -- and other means to achieve consistent, repeatable outcomes and understanding, enterprise architecture gave us a clear, methodical way of looking at business and the information technology that we use to support it.

That information technology, of course, comes in onrushing waves.Trends.And enterprise architecture -- now more or less embedded in how we plan, govern, and think about IT -- gave us the tools to manage how we accept it.If you consider today’s main trends from an enterprise architect’s perspective, you can get a much better feel for how they will impact your business in one, three, or five years down the road.

Case in point: Look at that buzzword of buzzwords, the cloud.It’s such a common phrase now that even my six-year-old has heard it (though he didn’t know what it meant until Dad explained the concept).Ten years ago, it was a new and intriguing concept, but nobody was quite sure how it would work in the enterprise.It took players like Google, Amazon and Microsoft to show just how hosted farms with massive numbers of servers could help clients achieve the economies of scale that today make the cloud so essential.

Those economies of scale were seen, understood and vetted by enterprise architects before they were an achievable reality, and companies that “bought in” to enterprise architecture had potential strategies in place for how they might take advantage of the cloud before Steve Ballmer was ever “all in.” And today cloud providers can present an entire solution stack with a single user interface and a rationalized, hosted infrastructure -- the sort of thing an enterprise architect would visualize as a dream scenario not ten years ago.The end result?Cloud computing is well on its way to becoming nearly as engrained in the enterprise IT landscape as enterprise architecture is, itself.

Learning Opportunities

Today’s Trends Through the EA Lens

So what will it take for today’s cool, “trending” topics -- big data, the Internet of Things, the customer experience -- to become embedded just as firmly in the foundation of IT?

To answer that question, you only need to follow some sage advice I once received from one of my mentors in the discipline: “think like an architect.” Consider these trends from an architect’s view.It’s all well and good to talk about their would-be benefits, but how achievable are those benefits for your company?What obstacles stand in the way of your particular enterprise as it looks forward to incorporating them -- and more importantly, why will it bother?

There has to be a business case for any application of new technology.The “Internet of Things” is a fine concept on its own, but an insurance company won’t much care that your filling station’s gas pumps are connected to the internet (which most all of them are, by the way).“Big Data” sounds great, but unless you know what you want to get out of all that information, it’s just statistics (and those can cut any way you want them to).

Finally, whereas big data is probably the architect’s favorite of the above, the “customer experience” is the fluffiest of them all, and the one that likely gives architects the most headaches.What challenges does it present to existing systems, to really buy into it, what changes must be made not just to applications and servers but yes, to processes and how people think?

Look past the buzzwords.Consider your own organization -- what it needs, where it is today and where it’s going, what philosophies guide it and which does it eschew -- and you’ll come up with some pretty sound answers.Then five years down the road, when some of what’s “trending” today is simply conventional, accepted wisdom and some of it’s been jettisoned in favor of something newer and trendier -- take a look back and see just how well you did.

If you can think like an enterprise architect, chances are you’ll have done pretty well indeed.

Title image by Marcin Roszkowski (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Find out what Rich thinks is coming for social business in (R)Evolution: The Past, Present and Future of the Social Enterprise