Thursday, September 5, 2013

Enterprise Architecture lessons from City Planning: Don’t let the 'Walkie-Talkie' slip by

​“Enterprise architects are practitioners of enterprise architecture; an information technology management discipline that operates within organizations” goes the Wikipedia definition. In a sense, we are practitioners of a unique craft that entails bridging business drivers, goals and vision with technology capabilities and solutions, while ensuring the proposals align with the organization’s roadmaps and regulations. All this can be a bit overwhelming as an elevator pitch. When asked to describe what an Enterprise Architect does, it is common to refer to the “City Planner” analogy. For example, US Government's NIH reference of Enterprise Architects starts by explaining how “You can relate enterprise architecture to the more widely understood concept of city planning. In city planning, zones are established for very specific purposes. The buildings that are built in these zones are constructed to specifications to meet those purposes.”

The EA as City Planners is exactly the analogy I was reflecting on when I came across recent news accounts of the car melting skyscraper in London (“'Walkie-Talkie' skyscraper melts Jaguar car parts”). A few thoughts and perhaps lessons here:

An article quoted the developer of Walkie Talkie building analyzing “the phenomenon is caused by the current elevation of the sun in the sky. It currently lasts for approximately 2 hours per day, with initial modelling suggesting that it will be present for approximately 2-3 weeks.” It is unclear whether the Architect and city planners analyzed this bit of information and decided, the residents of the neighborhood could live with the problem for about 2 hours a day for 2-3 weeks in the year? There is a distinct parallel to the challenges Enterprise Architects face. EA's are sometimes requested to let “tactical” solutions and proposals slip by because the potential impact is “calculated” to be minimal? An example perhaps when the business stakeholder indicated security of data was an “important” Non Functional Requirement (NFR) but got a sticker shock when told what it would cost for the system to be architected with the right principles within our firewalls. The Business stakeholder may also have been sold on a much cheaper alternative: a SaaS solution, hosted on the cloud by a third party vendor. The vendor might have promised that the risk of data breach was “minimal.”

The EA question here: Could the business live with this security risk for "2 hours a day, 2-3 weeks in a year?" Enterprise Architects should review findings of pilots, POC and modeling during initial design; and also stand by the right thing to do!

Another article on the topic mentioned how “The Architect Behind London's Car-Melting Skyscraper Has Had This Problem Before"Rafael Viñoly, the Uruguayan-born architect who designed the new London building that's now frying eggs across the street because of its intense reflection, is the same architect who designed another notorious "fry-scraper" in Las Vegas years ago. In 2010, guests of Viñoly's Vdara Hotel and Spa at MGM's Aria began complaining of severe burns from the glare being reflected off the building's facade."

This is also an issue Enterprise Architects are distinctly familiar with: Governance, feedback loops and of course the courage to say "No" to recurrence of design flaws. And holding a vendor accountable.

Of course, the biggest assumption with the City Planning analogy is that cities are populated by citizen who want to be governed and live by the rules, which would exclude cities in most of the developing world. I crack a smile every time I visualize the city planner analogy applying to Bangalore, the Indian Silicon Valley. On googling, I discovered that the Bangalore Development Authority does have an elegant master plan (link) with a Town Planner Member on board; an Enterprise Architect exists! Per the description, Bangalore’s Plan considers the present situation, the various growth trends at work and future issues. It integrates key influencing factors including City's natural environment, its heritage, and issues of economic efficiency and social equality.” And the visuals on the web page are akin to landscape diagrams Enterprise Architects in a fortune 500 enterprise would be proud of recommending!

My guess is that the town planners in Bangalore, like their peers in most developing nations encounter every imaginable resistance from “stakeholders” - from power hungry politicians who sign off on variances to zoning ordinances, to corrupt planning inspectors and bureaucrats willing to look the other way at major and minor infractions. Of course the City Planners also operate in cities that are populated by residents willing and intent on bending or breaking every zoning rule that doesn’t meet their fancy!

Just like much of the world's population inhabits the third world cities with toothless City Planners, much of Enterprise Architecture is practiced in enterprises without strong governance and stakeholder buy-in. Perhaps Enterprise Architects are really like Bangalore’s Town Planners: defining elegant master plans, landscapes and roadmaps from an ivory tower while their peers rubber-stamp every variance to the standard that “stakeholders” demand!

Other popular EA City Panning references
  • Enterprise architects are like city planners, providing the roadmaps and regulations that a city uses to manage its growth and provide services to its citizens. Wikipedia
  • Companies are focusing on "building codes" that define the principles and guidelines for architecture and on "building permits" that are granted to change initiatives that have been deemed compliant through the architecture review process. City Planning: A Metaphor for Enterprise Architecture: CIO.com
  • A Simple and Flexible Specification Enterprise Architecture Practice - CMU Reference