From an Ivory tower to a business-driven architecture approach

27 June 2022 5 min. read
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In today’s rapidly digitising world, tech architects are an enabler of business growth, efficiency or innovation. To be successful in their role, digital architects should not only focus on technology excellence, but also on ensuring they’re taking a business-driven approach to the design of future applications and systems, write Dominique Vande Langerijt and Jort Kolman from Mount Consulting.

In the world of Robert Jordan’s ‘The wheel of time’, there is a white tower. It is the home of the Aes Sedai, a group of powerful women who protect the world from breaking by governing it. They do so by using a holistic view from high up in the tower, while impacting the everyday lives of people. Other inhabitants look at the Aes Sedai with a mixture of fear, disdain, and incomprehension.

In Stephen King’s ‘Dark tower’ series, the gunslingers, knights and defenders of a feudal civilization, fight against the Crimson King, whose aim is to destroy the dark tower and bring chaos to the world.

From an Ivory tower  to a business-driven  architecture approach

While saving the world from doom, the ‘defenders’ are only accountable to themselves and the oath they took when becoming a gunslinger. They are revered and feared by the inhabitants of this world, who live their lives facing completely different challenges for their personal survival.

The Ivory tower

In the world of financial institutions, there is an ivory tower which rises above the organization. It is the home of architects, who govern the organization, designing its process/data/IT landscape, to minimize chaos and ensure growth.

Architects have the oversight, and they use this knowledge to shape the solution landscape around them into a continuously evolving and improving, living organism.

Other inhabitants of this world have a hard time understanding what these architects do and how they contribute to their daily challenges. Likewise, architects cannot address each individual need when they are working on a holistic view. In some institutions, architects are part of the IT organization, with a distinctively technology-driven view of the world, making it even harder for others to understand how architects might be solving their problems.

No more towers

In each of these worlds, the tower represents a crude and flawed solution to a very diverse problem. The inhabitants/defenders of the tower are convinced that they need to protect the greater good. An all-consuming task, which is stopping them from being involved in the details and needs of the individual. This is making them look unworldly and distant, defining solutions for problems they do not understand, with impacts they cannot completely fathom.

The solution to this problem is beautiful in its simplicity, if maybe not always easy to realize: tear down those towers.

Architects do not need to live in a tower. This does not mean that architects do not need to have overview, which they certainly do, but it is saying that the distance between architects and end users needs to be as small as humanly possible. We are not talking physically, although sitting next to each other to hear about everyone’s challenges will certainly help, but even more importantly, this must be accomplished by using the same language when talking about problems and solutions.

An architecture design is solving a business problem, which consists of processes and data. Only by having the architects use the same terminology as the end user, can you bring them closer to (understanding) the end user. Once a common ground has been established, can the underlying IT solution be defined. IT should always be supportive of the business process, it should never define the solution.

Wandering the lands

In his book ‘Sapiens’, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the transition from a migratory hunter-gatherer society to a sedentary agricultural life was not so much a blessing as a curse. It took away a lot of the freedom which humans had and replaced it with the constant need to tend to their crops and livestock.

We would argue that the same can be said for architects. Let them regain that freedom by taking them out of their tower and letting them roam in their domains. Let them see and understand what is happening in their part of the world. Let them talk to end users and share insights with each other.

Do these towers provide no purpose at all? Of course not, as mentioned, creating an overview is important and value-adding. By leaving their ivory tower, architects may end up trading in some of their holistic view for a more zoomed-in view of their own domain, but cooperation with other architects will help them paint the bigger picture. End users will value and trust them for a better understanding of the needs and challenges.

Does this mean you do not need any knowledge of IT and systems? Of course not! It is nearly impossible to solve a business process problem without impact on or support from IT solutions. Your design will only be better when you know the underlying application landscape, with its limitations and possibilities.

But, rather than starting from the typical architecture diagrams, consisting of boxes of applications and arrows with data between them, start from the business processes that these applications are supposed to support.

The business defines their process needs, these lead to data and processing/application requirements. This may sound overly obvious, but why then do organizations in practice repeatedly:

  • Design solutions for which the end user did not provide (sufficient) requirements?
  • Construct designs which start from an application, not from a process?
  • Define business processes based on the limitations of our current IT?

A sound advice

At Mount Consulting, we firmly believe in a business-driven architecture approach. We have vast experience in designing target architectures and target operating models for our clients, as well as data (integration) architectures. These are always tailored to the needs and limitations of the client, built on the foundation of the processes which the client employs and using the language which our client speaks.

We also experience first-hand what a qualitative, business-driven architecture can bring, as we help our clients in the implementation of these target architecture, in various roles ranging from quality assurance to business analysts and subject experts.