10 years, 5 months ago

Enterprise Architecture as Viable System

#entarch #ea2010 @uoaeao tweeted

“The most immediate and effective way to reduce costs is to use #entarch to stop or delay projects that are spending money.”

My first thought was that using enterprise architecture for this purpose wasn’t likely to be the fastest way to stop projects. Surely the most immediate and effective way to reduce costs is to stop projects, period.

In response to this, @uoaeao explained that

“#entarch adds value here identifying *which* projects should/can be stopped or delayed without intolerable business impact”.

I wonder what EA process is required to provide a professional answer to this question, and how long it is likely to take. There are at least three possibilities.

  • The EA team has already done this analysis, possesses all the necessary models and information, and is just waiting for someone to ask the right question.
  • The EA team comprehensively analyses the new situation, runs strategy planning workshops with senior management, produces a revised set of architectures and strategic project plans. 
  • The EA team does a quick and dirty exercise to protect its favourite projects. 

The dilemma for EA in this kind of situation is clear – how to appear useful in a crisis without (a) throwing all the EA professional discipline out of the window or (b) demanding at least four months to carry out a proper study.

Meanwhile, I wonder what makes this an enterprise architecture task rather than a programme management or risk management task. What is specifically architectural about checking alternative plans for “intolerable business impact”? If we were to observe the EA team responding to this kind of demand, how much of the activity and expertise could be described as “architectural”?

Discussions about the contribution of enterprise architecture to the enterprise often highlight one or more of the following four elements

  • Vision and forward planning
  • Intelligence and optimization (e.g. just enough complexity)
  • Resource allocation
  • Coordination (interoperability, standards)

Stopping or delaying projects is essentially a resource allocation task.

As followers of Stafford Beer may recognize, these elements roughly correspond to Systems 2-5 of the Viable Systems Model. Applying VSM to EA produces the following demands and challenges.

  • A complete account of enterprise architecture needs to cover all four elements identified above (Systems 2-5), and also explain how they are connected. 
  • Given that various other disciplines (including design thinking, organizational intelligence, programme management, risk management and scenario planning) also claim to address some or all of these elements, explain how enterprise architecture collaborates with (or incorporates) these other disciplines.


A number of my friends have one foot in the systems thinking world (including VSM) and one foot in the enterprise architecture world. We are looking to organize something early in 2011, probably in London. Please contact me (e.g. via Linked-In) if you’re interested.