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What is enterprise architecture? An introductory guide

By: Leanne Armstrong

Any quick trip around the internet will show you that enterprise architecture (EA) is a concept that wears many hats. In fact, depending on the organization or department using the term, it can refer to a blueprint, a strategy, a framework, a process, an application, or an entire business discipline!

The easiest way to understand what’s significant about enterprise architecture is to think of it as a map that shows the relationships between your business’s structure, processes, people, information, and technology. 

With a map like that in hand, your company can more efficiently navigate anything from operational hurdles to wide-spread business disruptions. You’ll also be able to position your team to collaborate more effectively, align projects with company strategy, and initiate more proficient business processes.

Now that we’ve simplified the jumping off point for this rather large topic, let’s take a deeper dive into the enterprise architecture definition and find out where EA came from, how it’s used, and what benefits it has to offer your organization.

What is enterprise architecture?

If the first thing that comes to mind when you think ‘architecture’ is some form of structural design, then you’re already well on your way to understanding the concept of enterprise architecture.

Although often geared specifically toward the creation of a technological infrastructure that will support the successful execution of a company’s strategies, EA can be simultaneously defined as:

  • A conceptual blueprint (or map) that describes an organization’s structure and operations
  • A strategic plan for aligning business operations with a company’s IT infrastructure
  • A process for organizing and standardizing infrastructure overall so it aligns with company goals

Gartner has defined EA as a discipline for “proactively and holistically leading enterprise responses to disruptive forces by identifying and analyzing the execution of change toward desired business vision and outcomes.”

While that’s quite a mouthful, the takeaway is that by making it easier to figure out where change needs to happen to continuously meet your business goals (in your processes? information? personnel? technology?), enterprise architecture provides the means to take action against challenges or threats.

Going digital with EA

Just as the term ‘architecture’ brings planning, designing, and building to mind, our take on the enterprise architecture definition should be conjuring up visions of creating and maintaining a business structure (or system) that successfully merges organizational behaviors, business roles, and workflow processes.

Of course, in today’s digital era all of that can’t help but revolve around technological matters.

Determining the most practical solutions for meeting existing and future objectives, for example, will usually mean thinking in terms of computer hardware, software, programming, networking, and data usage in addition to budgets and human resources.

Still, it’s important to keep sight of the fact that enterprise architecture is very much about being able to:

  • Coordinate departmental processes across your organization
  • Identify gaps in execution
  • Analyze information to solve business problems

Your system blueprint might not look the same as the company’s next door – but ideally it will be designed to meet the needs of your different teams, departments, or branches, and be scalable enough to accommodate growth in various areas.

Enterprise architecture history and use cases

Like many things business system-related, the concept of enterprise architecture was spawned by the technology industry. It’s largely credited to IBM systems planning specialists Dewey Walker (in the 1960s) and John Zachman (in the 1980s).

Originally formalized as a framework for helping businesses respond to the rapid growth of workplace computer use that began in the 1980s, EA now boasts multiple types of frameworks and a presence that’s expanded well beyond the IT department.

Rather than focusing solely on keeping a company’s tech-based systems running smoothly to accommodate employees’ day-to-day work, today’s enterprise architecture:

  • Contributes significantly to an organization’s ability to stay competitive
  • Ensures companies in their entirety can align effectively over the long term – especially during digital transformation
  • Centers on business outcomes by tying strategy and organizational needs to technological structure and solutions

To help clarify that picture, it’s worth noting that enterprise architecture can mean different things to different types of professionals.

Anyone who has a hand in computer programming or works in IT, for example, is likely to see EA as a vehicle for setting up and managing tech infrastructure, delivery networks, or business applications.

Outside the tech realm, however, department managers and other company leaders may view the building and running of business applications as a way to support larger EA-based strategies.  

EA use cases

With every aspect of a modern company’s structure integral to its success, here are some common use case examples where enterprise architecture plays a critical role:

  • Data governance processes, roles, policies, and standards (these ensure efficient connections between the use of information and company goal achievement)
  • Company knowledge management and documentation
  • Business growth initiatives (including mergers & acquisitions)
  • Innovation and change management practices
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Data security and risk management planning (with a blueprint of your entire operational structure, for example, you can gain a better view into where security breaches might occur)

Unlike its historical predecessor, you can think of today’s enterprise architecture as a way to meet the ever-growing need for enhanced customer experiences, timely market responses, and increased employee and business agility.

Key considerations and benefits of enterprise architecture planning

Enterprise architecture planning will often mean having to consider operations and strategy from 4 different angles – the overall business point of view, plus any information, application, or technological angles:

  1. The business side of things addresses a company’s daily operations in terms of standards and process design (these might involve delivering on your mission to stakeholders or customers, for example)
  2. The application angle is important for nailing down how those standards and processes interact across your organization (procedural consistency is a key factor here)
  3. The information element revolves around the use of efficient team communication (think database, document, and visual presentation systems, for example)
  4. The tech perspective, as we’ve already seen, is largely concerned with strategizing around hardware, software, networks, and operating systems

By pulling these various viewpoints together – and laying them out with the help of a visual map – you can see more clearly not just how your company is structured, but how the various structural elements all work together.

And with that vision comes a wide range of benefits; including the ability to plot an effective course of action across any business or technology changes.

Without this umbrella-type planning perspective in fact, your organization may find it difficult to:

  • Develop, implement, analyze and adapt processes to meet evolving business, user, or client needs
  • Align business and IT operations, systems, strategies, and output
  • Ensure the communication flow that enables both change management and effective decision making

Modern businesses are multi-dimensional. Enterprise architecture-based strategies, documentation, and tools allow organizations to bridge the many components that are essential to making their businesses tick.

With the help of visual diagrams and charts, for example, you can reduce operational complexity and focus on outcomes designed to:

  1. improve efficiency and organization
  2. lower costs and redundancy
  3. increase productivity and flexibility

By providing a complete overview of how your company runs, EA also provides critical insight into where problems exist, what’s required to fix them, and how to prevent them from recurring in future.

EA benefits

If we still haven’t convinced you of the significance of enterprise architecture, here’s a list of just some of the benefits your organization stands to gain by understanding and embracing this concept:

  • Greater visibility into business structure vs long-term objectives
  • Strategy unification across IT and non-IT business areas
  • Standardization of company goals across departments
  • Better support when organizational change needs to happen
  • Streamlined collaboration around project management
  • Elimination of duplicate tasks and other process inefficiencies
  • Company resource optimization
  • The ability to keep teams on the same page, potentially reducing staff turnover
  • An improved capacity to adjust to evolving market demands and conditions

With a well-designed approach to enterprise architecture planning, you’ll not only find it easier to implement change, your organization will be better equipped to cultivate the innovation required to birth transformation.

You’ll also be able to get a jump on change faster because everyone and every part of your business will already be working in sync to meet company goals.

You may recall our mentioning that today’s approach to EA is often based on the adoption of an established framework. To expand on our answer to the question of what is enterprise architecture, we’ll be digging more deeply into some specific EA frameworks, along with tools you can use, in future articles.

Until then, remember that the key to making the most of any new system is finding the application that best fits your needs.

From enterprise architecture and business strategy planning – to project management and process design – reaching for an all-in-one business tool like MindManager is a great way to keep the various moving parts of your organization working smoothly together.

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