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Should Enterprise Architecture Teams Be More Focused on Innovation?

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Enterprise Architects may be disproportionally concerned with portfolio consolidation, standardization and simplification instead of offering leadership in business technology innovation. This is the proposition offered by Forrester analyst Brian Hopkins in a recent blog post.

Hopkins’ assertion is based on results from Forrester’s September 2011 “state of EA” survey. This survey captured feedback from architects about which broad EA goals they had prioritized and invested in. The highest priority item was increasing the business focus of the EA team. This particular priority coincides with previous reports that highlighted this trend. Other high priority trends identified by the Forrester survey included portfolio simplification, road mapping, and improving the effectiveness of EA processes and methods. Hopkins points out that only 37% of responders singled out “improving how your firm identifies and integrates new/disruptive technology” as a high priority item. This contrasts with other CIO and EA surveys that recognize business technology innovation as a top priority and growth area for EA programs.

But do EA and innovation mix?  Jude Umeh of CapGemini did a webcast on this topic and highlighted three places where innovation generally occurs: new markets/products, new services, and changes in cost of production. He pointed out numerous emerging technology trends that could have significant impact on an enterprise. Hopkins’ post used an example from Netflix to point out how a technology-driven initiative to use cloud technologies made video streaming a viable new product and gave the company a leg up in an emerging space. What role does an EA organization play in fostering an innovative IT department? The recent announcement of InfoWorld’s 2011 Enterprise Architecture Awards provides some clues. Many of the award winners demonstrated value through road maps and reference architectures, and First Data used these artifacts to take a lead role in the coordination of technology adoption. The description of their award outlines their role in advancing innovation through strategic road maps.

As owner of these road maps, EA is responsible for ensuring effective collaboration with development and vendor partners to ensure the benefits of emerging technologies are effectively captured and that the company continues to push the limits of technology in developing internal capabilities and future product offerings. This includes leveraging internal private clouds with provisioning automation, integrating real-time communication services (IM, telepresence, videoconferencing), deploying consumer technologies (iPads), and incorporating IBM's Watson technology to manage 120TB of enterprise data migrating to a consolidated warehouse.

While it appears that EA teams are expected to play a part in technology advancement, Hopkins tempers expectations as to their role.  In a separate blog post, he says that organizations should not expect EA teams to be the source of innovation. He says:

The best technology innovators are users who have a problem to solve; motivation to solve a specific problem affecting their lives is the key ingredient. EAs just don’t have these kinds of problems; because they operate as a bridge between business and technology, most often they are attempting to solve things that affect other people’s lives.

Hopkins doesn’t believe that EA teams should be the source of innovation, but he encourages EA teams to play an active role in identifying people doing innovative things at the organization.  From the Enterprise Architecture Award winners, it also appears that EA teams that collaborate closely with business counterparts and have strong reference architecture models can more easily absorb innovative technology and identify impact areas.

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