Collaboration is Critical to a Successful EA

Michael Kalman, CIO, Hartville Pet Insurance Group
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Not too long ago I attended a conference of CIOs. While waiting for the keynote to begin, I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me, a fellow CIO from the west coast. He said something to me regarding Enterprise Architecture (EA) that I thought about for a long time. He said, “EA isn’t possible in today’s volatile business culture.” He proceeded to support his opinion by pointing a critical finger at disruptive technology, the movement of business toward increased digitalization, distributed workforces, the failure of Knowledge Management and above all the constantly shifting and contradictory demands on the CIO. While I believe that the challenges listed are part of a CIOs to-do list, they do not sit at the heart of a successful EA.

The reason I dismiss the arguments of my colleague is simple. When I began to consider what specifically a successful EA looked like to me, it was a short list of high level aspirations of where I and the rest of executive team wanted to take the company. In our consumer-driven business we wanted: terrific sales driven by happy customers that are also our fans; a culture of innovation with engaged employees; technology tools that allow the business to work however it needs and support organic growth. Simply put, the goal of every company is to change the world. Therefore, the goal of the EA is to express these aspirational goals with what is technologically feasible now and in the future. And you can’t get there without collaboration.  

  Collaboration necessitates breaking down the well-worn 'us v/s them' barrier that creates the verbal and mental segregation of IT and the Business 

Collaboration is critical to a successful EA. IT must see itself and be seen by others as collaborative partners with the senior suite, the departments and divisions of our companies. Collaboration necessitates breaking down the well-worn “us v/s them” barrier that creates the verbal and mental segregation of IT and the Business. IT must be part of the business. This starts with the CIO who must work to nurture collaborative relationships especially with the CMO and COO. Get to know them and the challenges of their teams. What technology tools are they using? Discover what’s working and what’s not working well enough, forge friendships not only in the C suite, develop opportunities for your IT staff to integrate with other people within the company. 

Also critical in developing successful EA is to establish cooperative involvement. This is actively loosening the reins on who creates and who consumes IT. These days everybody is a computer person. While many see this as a risk and potential liability, I’ve found that it is a huge asset. Years ago I provided my Finance department with SQL training and provided access to reporting databases. I expected it to free up some time from my reporting group through self-serve access. Much to my amazement, the Finance team’s new IT skills allowed them to ask increasingly more informed questions as they understood what data was available. We then mimicked this in Operations, and Marketing both with similar excellent results. At this point we regularly hand off large IT areas to other departments. As a result, every department becomes an IT department. 

There are some caveats that are important to note. These are some common EA dead-ends that can halt the best plans. 

Don’t lose sight of the importance of leveraging the collective experience of yours and your IT staff’s experience. While non-IT staff will produce increasingly valuable insights, they will rely on you and your team to give them what they need, versus what they think they need. 

Measure your EA efforts effectively. Look for issues and disconnects at every aspect and actively tune your EA. Some things will be for short term gains, and other items are riskier, longer plays with future payoff. Both are fine, but it is important to know when initiatives have become ineffective so that you can either repair or redirect.

Beware of over thinking/engineering your EA. An overly complex, difficult to understand EA has the real chance of creating systemic and morale issues. This is the quickest path to death of an EA. Luckily the fix is easy. You leverage your collaborative partnerships. Share and discuss your EA with everyone and look for ways to introduce simplicity and flexibility wherever possible. 

You could stop at this point and have the makings of an excellent EA. Everything falls into place because there is collaboration and cooperative involvement across the board. Everyone is in tune with everyone else, and works to make the best decisions at every level. What an EA built on these two concepts doesn’t give you is access to the really big, explosively transformational aspirations. For that you need to be bold.  

Being bold is about embracing risk. Consider the current state of digital security. The only way to have complete security is to shut the servers off. In order to run our businesses, we decide how much risk we are willing to live with and look to engineer better mitigation. To IT, changes to infrastructure and software become synonymous with increased risk and therefore problematic. To the rest of the business that effectively renders IT as a barrier to innovation and growth. Being bold with IT security is putting risk mitigation second to initiatives that grow your business and not letting security define or hamper the growth of your business. The ways in which you are bold with your EA will be unique to your business, but I encourage you to continue outside your comfort zone. 

As CIOs, we are charged with the mandate to establish and maintain a comprehensive architecture that can meet the needs of the enterprise now and in the future. Our Enterprise Architecture plans need to be flexible, functional and need to function anywhere, on any platform and provide high availability. Gone are the days of static planning and the role of IT as Order Taker. In order to craft a successful EA, collaboration and cooperation are critical. 

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