Rewarding Agility in Turbulent Times

By Chris Forde, The Open Group, Vice President Enterprise Architecture

Ever since digital-first businesses became a dominant force in our economies, it has been common to characterize them in terms of their ability to create turbulence. One of the major keywords of emerging digital business, after all, has been ‘disruption’: digital businesses have often grown rapidly to become prominent players by upsetting the rules and assumptions of industries they are emerging into.

That market shift has in turn led longer-established companies to shift their own practices towards a digital-centric mode of operation. In doing so, they are seeking the advantages which digital-native businesses could otherwise have over them, in terms of agility, efficiency, scalability, and ability to upset old practices.

It’s not hard to see why this kind of ‘creative destruction’, as it is sometimes termed, can succeed in situations where rapidly-evolving technologies offer better routes to reliable or growing markets. While innovation always carries a degree of uncertainty, the prize on offer is significant.

Moving Forward in Turbulent Times 

What happens, though, when the economic and business situation is less certain, when the major threat is coming not from new competitors but from broader market forces, and when (in short) the operational climate is already highly turbulent? As businesses stare down a range of adverse conditions in today’s economy, with no clear end point in sight, that’s an essential question.

There’s an instructive metaphor to be found in a very different domain of engineering. Ships’ propellers can be enormously powerful, moving and controlling vessels which sometimes weigh hundreds of thousands of tons. All of that power, though, doesn’t get translated purely into motion: large ships leave long wakes, cutting swathes of chaotic motion through previously calm seas.

In a maritime context, turbulence is part and parcel of moving forward – but large amounts of turbulence can also affect the action of propellers, potentially limiting efficiency and creating unexpected outcomes. As a result, a significant factor in vessel design is the need to manage how much the hull disturbs the water, allowing the propellers to interact with it in an effective, maximally propulsive way.

Just as with a ship, digital businesses have a harder time making effective decisions which introduce the right kinds of change to drive growth forward when the operating environment is already unpredictable and chaotic. And, just as with a ship, the answer lies in knowing how to established controlled, stable systems which sets the scene for more effective operation.

To achieve this, it’s not enough to focus on the ways that businesses can empower teams to move fast and make change. They need to institute approaches which – like the hull of a ship – establish the right conditions for rapid intervention to make a positive impact.

How the Right Flow is Established 

That necessity is why Enterprise Architecture (EA) has never been a more important discipline for modern, digital businesses. This is in spite of the fact that, unlike many emerging technology specialisms, the discipline of EA has been part of the business landscape for decades.

Indeed, the TOGAF® Standard, a standard of The Open Group, one of the most well-established and widespread methodological standards for EA, is rapidly approaching its third decade of ongoing development and utilization. In providing a clear, granular, flexible, and universal framework for business and technology infrastructure, the TOGAF Standard enables enterprise architects to model how information flows within an organization and ensure that decisions are made systematically and with accountability.

The extensive history of the standard is a real advantage for businesses grappling with the challenge of identifying valuable opportunities for change in the context of highly uncertain markets. By putting a stable, consistent, field-tested framework in place, EA can help teams across a business make better-informed, more meaningful decisions about their future direction of travel.

At the same time, the TOGAF Standard has continually evolved since its initial release, with ongoing reassessment and input from practitioners contributing to make sure that it keeps pace with changes in the realities of operating a digital-first business. Indeed, the TOGAF Standard, 10th Edition, published just last year, constitutes a major update to how the Standard is applied, bringing it closer to the needs of architects working in agile enterprises and on ongoing Digital Transformation initiatives.

Giving EA the Spotlight 

The ongoing relevance of EA is an under-sung success story in the history of digital business. Often out of the headlines, it has long brought cohesion and order to the rapidly building wave of technological development which has propelled the global economy in recent decades.

At the same time, there is a real sense in the community today that EA is a discipline which is now fully coming into its own. We all know how the discourse around business technology can swing like a pendulum between different ideas, as companies experiment and succeed with different ways of organizing teams and different ideologies around what effect digital delivery looks like. As it becomes evident, however, that our approach to stability and agility needs to be one of both/and, not either/or, decades of EA learning, development, and insight are primed to make a real difference.

That makes the 2023 Enterprise Architecture Award, which is being co-judged by The Open Group as part of this year’s Forrester Technology Awards, particularly exciting. With this award, we are aiming to bring prominence to the very best EA practices which are successfully making businesses more adaptive, creative, and resilient in a challenging market context.

Digital-first enterprises working today would be justified to look forward with both anxiety and optimism. The choppy waters we need to navigate through are very real, and so are the new territories of business technology on the horizon. Enterprise Architecture is primed to make that passage smoother.