Architecture bridges the gap between business and IT
A digital transformation not only gives an organization more clout, it also makes all parts of the organization collaborate more closely. Just as a digital transformation does not happen without a struggle, something often goes wrong in the translation of high-level organizational objectives into their realization through the deployment of technology at the operational level. Developing a good architecture helps the business to view IT strategically and make the right choices in terms of both objectives and costs.
Just as a digital transformation does not happen without a struggle, something often goes wrong in the translation of high-level organizational objectives into their realization through the deployment of technology at the operational level. Developing a good architecture helps the business to view IT strategically and make the right choices in terms of both objectives and costs.
As a boutique agency, ACOMPANY starts from the unique situation of the client, guides clients in making the right choices and helps bridge the gap between business and IT. The Agency approach (including the use of various specialists) allows of both strategic level (defining organizational goals) and operational level (setting up processes/technology) in order to successfully complete the digital transformation. We set up a chat with ACOMPANY founder David Geuens about how architecture bridges the gap between business and IT. The interview was conducted by José Delameilleure, former editor-in-chief of Data News and former publisher B2B IT at Minoc Business Press.
José: The gap between business and IT has dominated conversations for years now. Why is it that we can’t get rid of this gap? And how did that gap actually start?
David: To understand that, maybe we need to go back in time a little bit. For a very long time, Business and IT have been completely different worlds, each working in its own silo. Often they also work from different objectives and priorities and, on top of that, they also speak a different language. The jargon that IT speaks sounds like Chinese to the rest of the organization. Technology investments are written off over many years, which is at odds with the ‘agility’ the business needs. Digital transformation changes some of this. First, it forces everyone to work together and pursue the same goal. Consultation around digital transformation creates greater understanding and develops a common language. The close collaboration makes sense: as we explained in our previous blog, IT must support business transformation.
On architecture and urban planning
José: In what ways does architecture help business and IT work better together?
David: We can perhaps best explain this using an analogy. You can compare architecture to planning a city. You don’t start building a city haphazardly. If you don’t think carefully first, you soon have to start tearing down parts of your city, or building in between. So you have to think conceptually first, and the same goes for your digital transformation. Don’t start implementing a CRM, ERP or other platform at random, think about where you want to go first.
Architecture is an orderly way of defining an organization’s strategy. It helps define strategy based on data and analytics, not gut feeling. It also ensures that you compulsorily reflect on the long term and take into account changing needs and goals. In that reflection, you use a common language, such as through the visual representation of architecture.
Architecture is the missing link between strategy formulation, implementation and execution. Moreover, creating an architecture also provides clarity about budgets: the budgets needed for the priorities are estimated, also based on the dependencies between the various projects. Without a good overview, those dependencies in particular are often forgotten, leading to budgetary surprises. There, too, business and IT are then on the same page.
But perhaps the most important role of architecture is to ensure that all noses are pointing in the same direction and that the priorities are also validated by senior management. By thinking about everything well in advance and having it signed off by Management, you simply avoid problems ‘en cours de route’. To quote Einstein, “A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”
José: Aren’t architects still often too much techies who have too little eye for business needs? What is the definition of a good architect? How broad should his profile be?
David: Let’s first consider the different disciplines of architecture: strategic business architecture, enterprise business architecture, enterprise IT architecture, IT domain architecture, IT solution architecture. Each of these disciplines contributes in its own way to capturing the basics and how to work together. And it goes without saying that you also need different skills for each component. For strategic business architecture and enterprise business architecture, you need someone separate from the technology, who at least understands and speaks the language of the business. For enterprise IT architecture, you do need deeper IT knowledge, but still enough affinity with the business. For each discipline you may need different capabilities. Allow me to make another comparison: an architect who builds skyscrapers needs different skills than a landscaper.
Apart from that, every architect needs some basic skills. He must be able to think conceptually but at the same time be analytical. After all, he must bring structure to the jumble. Moreover, he must be empathetic and a good communicator. Let’s not forget that you have to get people on board with the story of the transformation. For that, you also need those soft skills. A good architect must not get caught up in architecture per se. That is not a thick report that you write to then stick in the closet. Architecture is a means to an end, a good architect must always keep that in mind.
All stakeholder must be involved in the transformation
José: How do you achieve good architecture? Are there certain steps you should always follow? And speaking of the bridge between business and IT, who should be involved?
David: At ACOMPANY, we always work in several steps to arrive at an architecture:
- We start with a target business architecture that defines how the organization must function to achieve the strategy.
- Then we draw up a transformation plan with projects for the next 3 to 5 years.
- And, of course, we model and document the target business architecture.
Who to include in the core team is very important. It must include everyone involved. For each organization, the composition can be different. Sometimes it can be the whole C-team, but there has to be at least one person from C-level in it. We always make sure that everyone who is impacted is engaged. That helps spread the word, because those people can be ambassadors within the organization. Of course, IT delivery should always be on the core team as well. They have to implement much of what has been agreed upon.
Within such a team, of course, opinions will often differ. Importantly, the ‘sponsor’ always has the casting vote.
José: We were just talking about the soft skills of an architect. How important is communication when implementing a digital transformation?
David: In a transformation you always work in the triangle “people – technology – processes,” so the human aspect and communication should never be neglected. In a transformation, a lot changes, and every employee will experience that: there will be new processes, new tools are introduced. That’s why you have to start communicating from the very beginning, otherwise you won’t get the employees on board. If you don’t tell them the story, they will invent their own story. And with changes, that own story usually assumes some negative changes.
The user’s needs are the focus
José: Lately you hear a lot of talk about ‘design thinking’ – does that concept also play a role in architecture?
David: Absolutely. Strategy is about making choices, and design thinking helps you make the right choices, and those are determined by the needs of the organization. Design thinking focuses on the users: what are their needs and preferences. You then base the strategy on that. As a regular part of our work, we organize a ‘clarity workshop’ in which we clearly define the scope of our intervention. This quickly delivers value for the client. If necessary, we also set up various consumer research workshops if we also want to engage with the client’s customer. That way you also find out what your end customers are waking up to.
Design thinking injects empathy by solving problems and challenges and allows you to prototype possible solutions. And by applying creative problem solving to the problems at hand, you arrive at better solutions.
José: Is architecture a given that is set in stone? Or can it still be modified once the transformation is underway? What are the next steps once the architecture is fixed?
David: As I said, architecture is not an end goal, a thick book you put on the shelf. Architecture is a living thing within an organization. In the end, it’s all about strategy. You have to keep going to see if an organization is still on track with respect to the strategy. The world does not stand still, and internal or external factors may prompt you to adjust the strategy. New strategic initiatives may also emerge that need to be fitted into the whole. But adjusting the architecture is obviously not as drastic an exercise as the initial architecture. To continue the analogy with city planning: perhaps you will need to rebuild a neighborhood when many new residents arrive, or when new strategic initiatives emerge.
José: How does ACOMPANY help companies create an architecture, and thus bridge the gap between Business and IT?
David: ACOMPANY’s raison d’être is to align organizations. We guide clients to arrive at the right strategic decisions. In doing so, we always start from the needs of the organization and the (end-)users, as I mentioned earlier when we talked about design thinking. After all, every customer has a unique situation. We always do the intro meeting in the format of a workshop. In it, we immediately map out what needs to be done so that we can deliver value quickly. With all stakeholders, we define the challenges from different perspectives and set priorities. At ACOMPANY, we live by the maxim that we deliver ‘time to value’ quickly: already after that first introduction, the customer has taken a step in the right direction. We immediately identify where the problems are and how we can make quick gains. On that basis, we make a plan of action in which the various architectural disciplines are given a place. From our toolkit, we select a number of services that are relevant, and we determine which profiles are relevant to the work at hand.
That fast time to value is something that distinguishes ACOMPANY as a ‘boutique agency’ from the big consultants who mainly want to sell as many profiles as possible on a long-term basis. At the same time, we want to burden the client as little as possible. We do co-creation, but we always do our homework well in advance: by letting the client choose from a number of scenarios to quickly go from conceptual to concrete. We always make sure everyone is still on the same page and behind the decisions.
So through our iterative approach, constant involvement of all stakeholders and providing communication, we help bridge the gap between business and IT. And our specialization in architecture is a perfect tool for that.