Digital Architecture: The Spark for Transformation — An Introduction

Posted November 27, 2019 | Technology | Amplify
arch spark

We are in the midst of a memetic war; the stories that win will determine the course we take. These stories have lives, and as the stories attract interest, they acquire power. Hype adds heat to these stories — until they become superhyped. The release cadence of the major technology players, which has gone from a sedate multi-annual cycle to months, to weeks, and even to minutes, is driving this hype — and superhype — that causes stories to gain momentum. These stories become runaway epistemologies that collapse with increasing rapidity. Yet, in this fast-moving world, we cling to our beliefs even as we see those beliefs being shattered by reality.

The promise of the big and complicated framework, method, or architecture is our safety. Conformance to norms leads to acceptability in our modern techno-geocentricity: we are the center, we hold the center, nothing else matters, we know all that needs to be known. But are we at an inflection point? On the one hand, we have a world dominated by increasingly complicated frameworks detailing each and every aspect of a “transformation,” be it agile, digital, or other, along with associated architectures. On the other hand, we can contrast this framework approach with alternatives emerging from complex adaptive systems and complexity science. Unfortunately, those alternatives come with the cognitive load associated with uncertainty and ambiguity, and it is this friction that maintains the status quo. It’s far easier to stay somewhere compli­cated but knowable rather than struggle forever with the uncomfortableness of uncertainty.

My framing of this issue of Cutter Business Technology Journal (CBTJ) is that digital architecture is the architecture that enables a digital business to effectively extract value from an advantage in a market that exists as a result of digital technologies by directly creating the opportunity or amplifying an existing advantage.

The dynamics of digital business are fundamentally different than the dynamics of traditional business; therefore, digital architectures must enable, address, and support the needs of digital business. The business need that digital architecture fulfills is to enable the enterprise to enter new arenas, establish an advantage, extract value from that advantage, and exit once that advantage no longer exists. We can compare this type of fulfillment to surfing a wave: getting all the energy from the barrel, and exiting before being crushed on the reef.

Digital architecture is a nebulous topic; it means everything, and it means nothing. The term describes any one or more of scaffolding, model, structure, process, product, and the characteristics of stability, resilience, adaptability, and agility.

As a practicing architect, I have existential moments when I hear the words I’m speaking and cringe, or I see the expressions on the faces of others as we tell each other ever more fanciful stories loaded with jargon to baffle the “outsider,” lulling our naive selves into believing we are certain of what we are doing. At times like these, I comfort myself with advice passed down from comedian Ricky Gervais: “No one else knows what they’re doing either.” Indeed, I have often sat in meetings where a generation of technologists have laughed at a previous generation’s decisions, doing so without course or perspective. At those times, I wonder what future generations will find amusing about this generation. I full-heartedly believe they will laugh at the overly complicated technology world we have created.

There appears to be a new school emerging; one that embraces the complex and the uncertain. Some of our authors in this issue of CBTJ would certainly identify with that school. Proponents of this new school are building in areas of common concern — systemic resil­ience, critical thinking, and mental models — and are introducing variety, design tooling, and governance models. Each is attacking a systemic issue via experimentation, letting reality be the judge of what’s useful and what should survive.

In This Issue

In our first article, Barry O’Reilly calls on us to rise above the hype, myth, and storytelling that have created the concept we call “digital architecture.” O’Reilly proposes that the concept is part of an ongoing storytelling process that we as humans use to understand and navigate our world; digital architecture isn’t a real thing, it’s just part of a story to help us find our path. O’Reilly cautions against adherence to dogma and the slavish belief that copy-and-paste frameworks can solve our problems. He counsels that we should recognize that we are in an infinitely repeating cycle of hype. Reality inevitably tears back the curtains to reveal what works; that is, proven heuristics that solve real problems. O’Reilly challenges us to become the scientist, building theory and applying reason and critical thinking at first hand. The alternative is to continue surfing the hype waves and wiping out each time the story fails to fulfill its promise. The road O’Reilly proposes is dangerous and not for the faint of heart, but if you are fainthearted, remember to favor action over inaction, enjoy the safety of the herd, and beware being crushed by collapsing stories.

The next three articles explore different, interrelated aspects that solve specific challenges. First, John Murphy advocates for the use of business capability modeling as a means of describing what’s most important. Simon Field then introduces the Solution Architecture Review Method (SARM), a technique that drives to the heart of introducing variety (via alternatives) into the design of an architecture. Next, Mark Greville proposes a way of accelerating change through the decentralization of decision making and the use of a technique he calls “public self-governance.”

In his article, Murphy proposes some practical steps to resolve the communication difficulties that still plague transformation programs. He proposes business capability modeling as a way to create shared understanding and bridge the worlds of business, process, and technology information encapsulated in business capabilities. The building of the model reveals unseen dependencies and creates a canvas to reimagine the nature of things. A key benefit of this approach is separating the what from the how; this abstraction creates the space for optionality as an organization explores using new and ever-faster emerging technol­ogies. Once constructed, the model can be used for a variety of purposes to bring clarity to the nebulous areas of investment planning and digital transformation. The challenge with this model, however, has always been getting started. Murphy provides some high-level guidelines on where and how to begin, including the scrap-heap challenge of information discovery, tips on getting buy-in, the use of language, a focus on outcomes, and alignment with goals. The result of this approach is to create a lingua franca, a durable model that can be shared and used by all as a means of driving clarity.

Next, Field integrates business capability modeling into SARM, a formal method for developing and evaluating competing designs for solution architectures. Field shows how this technique can be used to build competing designs for “digital services.” SARM focuses on architecturally significant requirements, as these are most likely to be difficult (and expensive) to change once enshrined in the architecture. The framework uses business capabilities as a way of expressing functional suitability, which introduces a layer of abstraction difficult to achieve through other means. The model supports tradeoff analysis within and across competing designs. This risk-based approach to attribute evaluation makes for easier comparison, dependency analysis, tradeoff analysis, and decision making. Field bases his example on work he is undertaking for Admiral Insurance in the UK. The focus on developing competing designs introduces an intentional step that increases variety where most existing methods tend toward preemptively converging on a design after no or only superficial evaluation of alternatives.

In his article, Greville proposes an alternative to the command-and-control theater that is governance (particularly technology governance) in most large organizations. Greville offers to help the reader accelerate change, distribute decisions, and self-govern transparently. He offers examples of business-model-assassinating decisions from previous generations and lays out a path toward a scalable, sustainable, useful governance approach that avoids the bureaucracy typically associated with governance. Allowing the right person to make the right decision in the appropriate context is the key. Greville introduces the concept of Type 1 and Type 2 decisions, with guidance on how to distinguish Type 1 from Type 2. The article explores decision dynamics (i.e., decision reversibility, ROI on the decision, decision scope). Finally, Greville proposes the method of public self-governance to break up complex governance structures, eliminate governance body queues, accelerate change, and drive accountability and transparency via a modern, decentralized approach.

Our final two articles focus on other aspects of digital architecture. Dinesh Kumar introduces the Digital Capability Maturity Framework (DigitalCMF), an approach to understanding your digital maturity, and Kaine Ugwu offers tips, techniques, and pointers to building effective digital architectures.

Kumar comes at digital architecture from the perspective of business capability maturity: the readiness of any organization is a function of the maturity of a set of digital business capabilities. Kumar goes on to describe the DigitalCMF, including the business capability domains, the digital business capabilities, and various assessments and tools within the framework. The approach goes deeper to look at readiness across processes, people, and technology. The author outlines a roadmap using capability engineering as a way forward to assist organizations on the journey to a digital future.

Ugwu closes out this issue with a series of tips, tricks, and techniques to approach the development of a digital architecture. He offers some clear guidance on putting the experience of customers at the heart of the architecture, positioning digital as a strategic approach to reimagining business models and infusing the organization with agility. Ugwu proposes a prag­matic use of industry reference models and pinpoints the key areas that need to be addressed to kickstart this process: architecture principles, C-suite engagement, design thinking, customer centricity, and emergent innovation.

No matter where you are in your journey or what your stance is on digital architecture (is it real or just story?), this issue will challenge your worldview and, in the words of contributor O’Reilly, challenge each of us “to work as the scientist rather than the consumer of the scientist’s work,” building and testing our own theories in the laboratory of our own experience. Whether you leave your reading of this issue with a feeling of foreboding and anger, resistance, joy, happiness, and/or excitement, let me leave you with one last quote from another comedian, Joe Rogan: “If you ever start taking things too seriously, just remember that we are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship flying through the universe.” The journey we are on needs ideas to be rigorously tested at every turn, because failing that we are doomed to repeat the sins of the past.

About The Author
Gar Mac Críosta
Gar Mac Críosta is the founder of Business Model Adventures and leads IASA Global’s Next Architecture Practice Group. He has facilitated the development of change programs with C-level executives, senior managers, technology leaders, and executives in the areas of business model innovation, digital strategy, architecture, and organizational effectiveness (Lean/Agile) across various indus­tries. Mr. Mac Críosta is a Certified Architect… Read More