19 May 2021Blog

What is learning architecture?

The traditional methods for managing enterprise architecture are too cumbersome for a modern, agile organisation’s requirements. Learning architecture brings customer centricity, resilience and controlled change into architecture management, and modern architecture management principles ensure that the enterprise architecture itself can adapt to changing requirements.

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Does enterprise architecture sound like a stuffy relic from the era of traditional project and portfolio management? Does TOGAF instill a slightly uncomfortable feeling of a bureaucratic hierarchy where any development requires committee approval and formal architecture insight? Do you still want to ensure that rapid experimentation doesn’t lead to a security nightmare, agile service production is done on a sustainable foundation and the risks in technology and security are manageable?

I’m certain that many are nodding their heads for all of the above. Increasing pressure for sustainability, the Covid-19 pandemic, global component shortage, escalating cyber threats, and ever-increasing global competition have revealed many organisations’ vulnerability and the difficulty of adapting. Leveraging digital services and the data assets created and enabled by them has become central to the strategy of many if not all top companies and organisations. This places new requirements for customer engagements, business models, processes, peoples’ roles and responsibilities as well as the enabling technology components and platforms. Traditional architecture management methods fit the needs of this rapidly evolving environment quite poorly, and all the while the need to understand how to enable adaptability without breaking the organisation is becoming one of the top priorities of management teams.

Agility in architecture management enables resilience

Resilience requires agility from the architecture management model. It has to be flexible and able to adapt to changing situations. In practice this means that instead of the enterprise architecture office handing down strict requirements, it should focus on enabling good architecture decisions close to the need. Instead of strict top-down processes, the management model should embrace the agile ideology of short feedback cycles and focus on guiding and learning – and adopting the architecture practices to changing requirements as well.

We continue to see significant friction between our customers’ business development and technical development functions. Slightly exaggerated, the business tends to see IT as a barrier to development, making everything slow and expensive. Meanwhile, IT feels that the sole purpose in life for business is to maximise the chaos. Somewhat obviously this is often a result of too little or too late co-operation. Technology teams aren’t involved in customer insight and business design work and service design is done with limited to no technical understanding, resulting in technically infeasible design decisions. The problem is exacerbated as the organisation is struggling towards becoming data-driven, introducing a new set of requirements and goals for both business and technology practices.

Learning architecture brings help to these issues. Enabling principles and understanding of life cycle requirements and technology strategy instead of strict bureaucracy and top-down mandates help make good architectural decisions from the first steps of customer insight work onward. Short feedback cycles ensure that dialogue with all stakeholders is open. Open dialogue and communication ensure that the capabilities required for development exist and are available when they are needed – and external help can be utilised efficiently and quickly while still maintaining sustainable, coordinated enterprise architecture.

Modern enterprise architecture combines business model, strategy, and customer insight

Enterprise architecture doesn’t have to be a relic from the dinosaurs of corporate history. When well designed and managed, it is a way to combine the business model, strategy, and customer insight into value streams, competence requirements, and enabling technologies. It is a way to ensure that the left hand knows what the right is planning – preferably in time for both to be available for tasks requiring two hands. This way must be adaptable and flexible but controlled and repeatable. We call this model learning architecture.

Our principles for modern architecture management are the following:

  • Derive architecture guidelines from strategy. One of the main purposes of architecture management is to realise strategy in daily operations.
  • Enable good decisions. Involve people to design, understand and communicate architecture principles and enable the various teams and units to make good architectural decisions.
  • Utilise frameworks. Know and understand standards, patterns, platforms, and frameworks to utilise good practices and tools from them, but don’t take anything as gospel.
  • Design for tomorrow, build for today. Leverage patterns and frameworks to design for unknown requirements and future adaptability, but implement practices and solutions based on validated insight.
  • Govern, but trust. Have controls in place to govern the architecture direction and give guidance, but use them as enablers that place trust in smart people.

With these principles, we have successfully driven agile architecture work in several customer engagements in diverse environments. Our experience includes service design projects that involve ensuring technical feasibility, agile technology strategy design, customer-centric methodology, and process renewals as well as designing and implementing services that meet the requirements of both customers, business, and the IT teams operating them.

We are happy to engage with you to help build resilient, modern architecture practices that enable adaptability, sustainability, and close collaboration between customers, business, and IT.