The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked yet another evolution in the often-changing role of the corporate enterprise architect.
In recent years, enterprise architects (EA) had transitioned from a role where they provided technology oversight to responsibilities more aligned with business strategy. But for many, current events have reversed this trend, as corporations added cloud services, emphasized security and embraced a remote work culture during the pandemic, according to a recent study published by Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
"A lot of organizations went into survival mode," said Gordon Barnett, a Forrester principal analyst.
The shifting enterprise architect role
The Forrester study, titled "The State of EA 2022," revealed that the number of EAs positioned to influence business strategy and business projects between 2021 and 2022 decreased from 15% to 7%, while business projects decreased from 28% to 14%. Further, 67% of EA leaders have significantly increased their focus on technology strategy.
When times get tough and money is tight, companies talk less about strategy and more about their bottom line. Such was the case of Southwest Airlines when the pandemic hit, and customers curtailed or canceled travel. The company paused its expansion plans and changed course, said Christian Holston, senior enterprise architect at Southwest Airlines in Dallas.
"Instead of modernizing, we rationalized," Holston said.
The company knew travel would eventually return, so it took this time to optimize its platforms to emerge from the pandemic in a better position. One silver lining? Business volumes were down, so it was less risky to make the kind of dramatic IT changes that would cause harm to the overall operation, Holston said.
The company also took time to get a big picture view of its architecture. "We looked at the whole forest, and not just tree by tree," he said. "It helps us make investments in lean times."
This wide-angle view of technology gives senior leaders some awareness of what's happening outside their own departments and provides some insight about risks in other parts of the company, he said.
"That's been enlightening [for them]," he said. "They knew their issues, but not the struggles of their own peers."
Not every industry took as direct a hit as air travel. In some companies, business strategy saw less disruption, and the focus of the enterprise architect remained intact.
At Clario, a Philadelphia-based company that provides medical devices for clinical trials, Rudi-Dan Brandl said his enterprise architect role continues to be at the intersection of technology and business strategy. "Our focus was always on technology," said Brandl, Clario's chief enterprise architect. "We are building our own products, not just buying third-party software."
The complexity of EA
Forrester positions EA as four archetypes, and each delivers value to the enterprise, Barnett said. Some influence business strategy, some focus on technology strategy that enables the business strategy. Others are centered on the strategic portfolio, and ensuring that the business invests in the right technology. A fourth type of EA is largely focused on technology product delivery.
The enterprise architect role usually finds support from top management, but not always the ranks below, according to Barnett, who added that it can be a challenge to build relationships. He said it often surprises him that the only two areas that strongly advocate for EA are IT leadership and security. In fact, about 61% of IT leadership supports EA, but in times of cost cutting, EAs are often the first to go.
Gordon BarnettPrincipal analyst, Forrester
"You'd expect that with EA delivering value, support would grow, but it has not," Barnett said.
Clario's Brandl concurs that without the right amount of collaboration between teams, an EA might struggle to find success. "If there is no harmony, the likelihood of failure is very high," he said. Brandl said he feels well supported by peers and upper management, and it certainly helps that he built relationships for many years as Clario's vice president of engineering.
Brandl currently manages a team of up to six application and technical architects. "It's our task to collaborate together and deliver EA," he said. "Not just for security but the full set of layers."
Specialty EA tool usage remains low
One of an EA's toughest struggles is to keep fresh and accurate data from all of a company's stakeholders. There are tools on the market aimed specifically at this task. But Forrester reports that about 53% of companies use the Microsoft Suite for EA tasks.
That figure is down from about 70% the previous year, which Barnett surmised might be due to actual EA job cuts during the pandemic. Only about 30% of companies use a commercial EA tool, according to Barnett. "They either don't see the benefit, or the cost is too high," he said.
But a commercial tool can offer a simplified interface and nice reporting, said Southwest's Holston, whose company uses software made by LeanIX, based in Germany.
For its part, Clario uses an enterprise architecture modeling tool made by Sparx Systems Pty Ltd., an Australian company. Clario has built a repository over 12 years that documents many layers of business and through its infrastructure.