What is Enterprise Architecture?

Enterprise architecture definitions abound. Enterprise architecture analogies are commonplace. So, why is it that enterprise architecture is much misunderstood, its role under-appreciated, and EA still under-delivers business value?
The problem is not in the definition, per se, but the inability to define something can sometimes show our inability to fully comprehend its power, role and capability or to unleash its value.
So, what is enterprise architecture?
Enterprise architecture is a holistic, hierarchical, and abstract description of the essential elements of an organization to maximize shareholder value over time.

Essential Elements of Enterprise Architecture

Let us elaborate on the key aspects in this definition of enterprise architecture:

  1. Enterprise Architecture is holistic: the scope of enterprise architecture planning is top to bottom, and left to right i.e. it spans the entire organization and all of its dimensions. However, that does not mean "here and now" i.e. an enterprise architecture can - should and MUST - be built piece - domain - by piece not all at once.
  2. Enterprise Architecture is hierarchical: enterprise architecture is layered in levels or degrees of generalizations - from logical to physical and everything in between.
  3. Enterprise Architecture is abstract: enterprise architecture describes the logic of an enterprise i.e. it is a logical representation of an organization. Through layers, this logical description is translated into a physical - people, systems, networks etc. - components that must be built to support the operations of the enterprise. Another way of looking at this is that enterprise architecture translates organizational strategy into operations.
  4. Enterprise Architecture is descriptive: enterprise architecture is a written representation of the organization. It communicates the essence of the organization by detailing its parts and their relationship with each other
  5. Enterprise Architecture covers the essential: simply put: enterprise architecture stays away from the merely interesting and focuses on the pertinent. The purpose of enterprise architecture is to help understand the lay of the land - not cover every blade of grass - so one can navigate it effectively. Essential to what? Essential to create value for the business. Essential so one creates the biggest bang for the IT buck.
  6. Enterprise Architecture describes elements of an organization: enterprise architecture describes parts or aspects that are characteristic of the organization - together they describe the essence of the organization. These descriptions are specific, therefore, they help communications, eliminate redundancy and create standards that must be followed.
  7. Enterprise Architecture is about an organization: enterprise architecture describes an organization - a body of people, processes, and technology formed for a purpose or objective.
  8. Enterprise Architecture delivers shareholder value: Enterprise architecture has a purpose - sad, but true! - and that is to deliver business value. Enterprise architects lose when they forget that it is all about business value - pretty charts and graphs can keep you busy for years but your paycheck is for delivering value to shareholders.
  9. Enterprise Architecture is iterative: Enterprise architecture is built over time piece by piece - one domain at a time. Enterprise Architecture's layers also develop over time. Enterprise architecture needs continuous refinement because no business operates in a stationary environment. 
  10. Enterprise Architecture describes the organization over time: Enterprise Architecture maps the  organization's journey over time from where it is to where it needs to be to deliver maximum business value. By definition, it is an endless journey.

If an enterprise architecture delivers on these points it would've met its obligation and become a tool for creating and communicating the value in an organization.
Did we miss the process aspects of enterprise architecture? And its role in governance? Not really. We are describing the product. The process that builds it is called enterprise architecture planning and that includes its use in IT Governance and its own governance.

Enterprise Architecture Definitions

Here are a few examples of enterprise architecture definitions. Each has elements that help understand enterprise architecture but they miss critical aspects to completely answer the question: What is Enterprise Architecture?
Gartner's Definition of Enterprise Architecture:
Enterprise architecture (EA) is a discipline for proactively and holistically leading enterprise responses to disruptive forces by identifying and analyzing the execution of change toward desired business vision and outcomes. EA delivers value by presenting business and IT leaders with signature-ready recommendations for adjusting policies and projects to achieve target business outcomes that capitalize on relevant business disruptions. EA is used to steer decision making toward the evolution of the future state architecture.
This is a good definition that includes the holistic, business focus,  and change aspects of enterprise architecture, and focuses on its purpose - making IT decisions that assist in IT Transformation. However, that is one of the purposes - what about communications and alignment of perspective between the leaders of the key organizational functions even if there are no disruption to the enterprise?
So, it misses the question: what is enterprise architecture? and focuses instead on what is enterprise architecture planning important? (arguably, provides a narrow change perspective but IT transformation is a critical use of enterprise architecture.)
Gartner had provided a definition of Enterprise Architecture in 2008. It is not clear if they have disavowed this definition and replaced it with the one provided above.
Enterprise architecture is the process of translating business vision and strategy into effective enterprise change by creating, communicating and improving the key requirements, principles and models that describe the enterprise's future state and enable its evolution. The scope of the enterprise architecture includes the people, processes, information and technology of the enterprise, and their relationships to one another and to the external environment. Enterprise architects compose holistic solutions that address the business challenges of the enterprise and support the governance needed to implement them.
NIH Definition of Enterprise Architecture:
The National Institute of Health has an excellent enterprise architecture program and capability. Their website is informative and shares a wealth of information on enterprise architecture planning. NIH defines EA as:
Enterprise Architecture is a comprehensive framework used to manage and align an organization's Information Technology (IT) assets, people, operations, and projects with its operational characteristics.
Enterprise architecture defines how information and technology will support the business operations and provide benefit for the business. It illustrates the organization’s core mission, each component critical to performing that mission, and how each of these components is interrelated.
Enterprise Architecture components include:

  • Guiding principles
  • Organization structure
  • Business processes
  • People or stakeholders
  • Applications, data, and infrastructure
  • Technologies upon which networks, applications and systems are built

If we compare this definition with the essential elements of enterprise architecture then it is missing a few critical things. For example, it does not mention the hierarchical nature of enterprise architecture nor its  focus on value or its depiction of the organization over time.
VITA Definition of Enterprise Architecture
The Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) is Virginia's consolidated information technology organization. VITA has an informative website on enterprise architecture planning that also answers the question: what is enterprise architecture?
Enterprise architecture (EA) in the Commonwealth is the strategic framework that is driven by the business of the enterprise and the corresponding business strategies, visions and goals. The framework establishes a process that is focused on building and maintaining an enterprise-wide business, information, solutions and technical infrastructure, and architecture that is adaptable and that best enables the service activities of state government in an ever-changing environment.
The goal of EA is to create a common and cohesive vision among business and technology leaders regarding:

  • The emerging technology trends and enterprise business strategies that will drive the architecture<
  • The IT requirements derived from enterprise business strategies
  • The role and definition of the technical architecture that best enables the business needs of the enterprise
  • The migration plan that will move the enterprise from the current to the future architecture

A good definition of the process and framework of Enterprise Architecture Planning. However, it misses some of the essential elements of enterprise architecture. For example, the hierarchical nature, and the depiction of the enterprise over time - both are not nice to have but critical elements of enterprise architecture, its planning and governance.
JISC has a good discussion on what is enterprise architecture which is worth a read.
More on Enterprise Architecture

What do you think about the definition of enterprise architecture? Please drop me a line with your comments, criticisms and suggestions - the idea is to get the best definition possible not for me or anyone else to own it! 
Sourabh.Hajela at cioindex.com

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