Avoiding the Standard Metaphors for Enterprise Architecture

I recently read another thought-provoking article from Anna Mar (aka @simplicableanna) entitled “How to Explain Enterprise Architecture to Your Grandmother“. It contains good advice: “it is a useful exercise to think-out an explanation that doesn’t rely on specialized terms” – especially when you are thinking about what you do for a living! So, how does Anna respond to this challenge? With a tried and true metaphor for Enterprise Architecture:

A Enterprise Architect is like a city planner. A city planner sets building codes and plans common services such as roads and water. Enterprise Architects do the same thing for technology.

This metaphor does have a respected lineage, the most noted example I have come across being this very good article from McKinsey: The Paris Guide to IT Architecture (free registration required to read the whole thing). I can’t help feeling though, that the metaphor is a bit strained. It just doesn’t seem to fit what I do (and maybe that is just me). I don’t set out architectural zones based on some grand scheme. There are other traditional metaphors for enterprise architecture – the most standard would be a building architect (or “real architect”). Again that doesn’t quite gel with the problems that I face.  A better metaphor might be a notion based around the idea of family suggested by Todd Biske. In his blog Todd explores notions of enterprise architecture as family therapist, as family elder (I suggested in the comments that the Maori notion of kaumatua might be a good metaphor). All of these however fail for me for the reasons that they imply wisdom and respect that are often lacking from the position of enterprise architects. Indeed, they imply a certain idea of the enterprise architect as someone people go to in order to resolve family disputes. In my experience this just isn’t the case, I don’t get people coming to me for those sorts of problems and so those notions don’t work either. Instead I get:

  • People coming to me asking me to rescue a project
  • People with a problem saying “what should we do here?”
  • People wanting to know which is the best technology to buy.
  • People wanting to know what impact technology will have on their business.
  • People wanting to understand particular technologies: “what is the cloud? what is desktop management?”
  • Pe0ple wanting to know how to maximise the return on investment of the technology they have purchased.
  • People want to know how to reduce costs by investing in technology.

For me at the moment, therefore, enterprise architecture is all about business cases, predictions and technology investment. That has got me thinking that a better metaphor for enterprise architecture is that of the investment banker or financial advisor.

Think about it: I need to form opinions about the current state of the technology market and where it is going. I need to understand the needs of my “clients”. I need to make careful choices about what they should invest in to get the best return. I need to look at my “clients” current investment portfolio to understand their risk exposure. I make recommendations as to how they might invest to address those risks, how they might change their portfolio in order to better take advantage of current or future market conditions. I give advice on what the market is like, and which are wise investments and which are not.

For me, at this point in time, the idea of the enterprise architect as investment banker or financial advisor makes a lot of sense.

Edit: Anna has reacted to this post with a very good, thoughtful description of the different flavours of enterprise architect. Read it here.


11 Responses to “Avoiding the Standard Metaphors for Enterprise Architecture”

  1. Doug-

    Catching up from vacation last week, thanks for the shout out. I also talked about the financial adviser metaphor a while back in this post. I think that metaphor is probably the best fit.

    • Hi Todd,

      Thanks for the comment, and pointing to your earlier post. Obviously I’ve taken a slightly different version of the same metaphor, but I’ll still claim that great minds think alike!

  2. Hi,

    First of all, Doug you have written a very good post here. I would not expressed my feeling about this grandma expalination article (that I read few days ago) better than you did. In addition, Peter’s comment and discussion that follow his first comment is really pinpointing what matters when using metaphors. People might take the metaphor to the first level and get stoke to it. Then, when it comes to us, as enterprise architects, we are frustrated because the metaphor is too restrictive. Several points here:
    First of all, we have to accept that we cannot explain the whole thing about EA to not EA people.
    Second, always remember when you talk to other people ( not EA people) that they are not architects and might don’t give a damn about it. Explaining them in details what we are doing as architect is selfish and useless. Like I like to say: “when talking to your CEO. Remember he is not an EA architect and that he does not want to be. You are here for”
    You could apply the same to other people than your CEO.

    Back to he metaphor usage. Yesterday, an Old friend came with his new girlfriend to pend the weekend to my summer house. She asked me: “what are you doing as job?” She has nothing to do with EA business. I told her: “I’m an EA. You see building architects?” “yes” she said. “ok, this has nothing to do with what I do”. Then I gave few example of what wrote in your article. (very close too at least) and I can say that she undrstood it fully.

    • Hi Emeric,

      Thanks for your comments. You are right about metaphors – we need to be careful in employing them. But as we seem to be saying there is some value in this one as it is alerting us to some aspects of our job that have nothing to do with the sorts of things highlighted by other metaphors.


  3. Doug,

    The first link with what happened when i tried to make the metaphor work should be http://peterbakker.wordpress.com/tubemapping-the-enterprise/bmgen-neural-network-simulation/

    Something went wrong with my copy&paste and I didn’t checked it before posting my comment 😦

  4. Hi Doug,

    I like the metaphor. But:

    I have experienced that using metaphors is a tricky business 🙂

    I tend to use the nervous system (too much?) as a metaphor to describe how a business/enterprise works or should work. But I noticed that using the metaphor distracted a part of the audience and myself. The audience because some felt that the metaphor was flawed or unclear and they started to discuss the metaphor itself instead of the ideas I wanted to communicate. And I was distracted because I was to eager to “prove” the metaphor and I started to invest time in making the metaphor work instead of making the ideas work 😦

    You can see the difference (in my case) between what happens when you want to make a methaphor work at http://www1.nespresso.com/precom/aboutus/aboutus2_my_en.html and what the result is when you are focussing on the same basic idea without using metaphores at http://peterbakker.wordpress.com/tubemapping-the-enterprise/unbundling-nestle-and-nespresso-simulation/

    • Thanks for the necessary corrective Peter. I agree with you about the trickiness of metaphors. In fact I could write another post about the tyranny of metaphors. I’ve run into entire programmes of work which can only explain what they are doing by way of an analogy, but when you ask them “so what does that really mean?” they are unable to answer. They have no precision. It is also too easy to get carried away with the metaphor. Having said that, metaphors are an important part of communication, and we will do well to use them wisely especially to communicate the unfamiliar to people – and enterprise architecture is very unfamiliar to many, especially grandmothers!

    • Hi Doug,

      I was just following some Traces in the Sand and saw the trace to here from Ruth with a remark to me: “Peter I tried to write some of my observations and questions down last night”. Which makes me think that I made the impression that I’m feeling negative about metaphors or what happened during my prototyping process. Which is not the case…

      I will emphasize that I’m very positive about the use of metaphors when you are generating ideas and when you are trying to get feedback. Metaphors are like maps, they are not the real thing but a great starting point for discussions. So metaphors helped me to generate a lot of feedback and helped me to generate a lot of prototypes in a very short time. But there always will be a point where you must let the metaphor go and start focusing on the real thing.

      Using metaphors to explain something to laymen seem logical but will a grandmother know what an investment banker or a city planner is really doing? So choose your metaphor wisely otherwise you have to explain the metaphor as well with another metaphor 🙂

      • Hi Peter,

        I didn’t see your comment as negative – just a necessary warning: don’t take metaphors and analogies (no matter how good) too seriously. Again, you are right on the money. Amusingly I had two very different reactions today. I explained my post and idea to my partner, and she said: “no you’re not like an investment banker or financial adviser because they have bad reputations” – exactly the sort of missing the point/distraction reaction you can get with a metaphor. The other was when I was talking with a colleague and he was saying that it had taken hm many years to realise that being an EA was all about investment. I explained my idea and he said: “yes, that is exactly right”. I felt validated, but then realised the only person who got my analogy was someone who didn’t need an explanation of what enterprise architecture was 😦


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