Mike Walker Talks Business Architecture and the Best Practices for Using It

business architecture interview

Visit the home page of “Mike the Architect” at www.mikethearchitect.com/, and at first glance, the building on the site might suggest that the author is an architect—the kind who designs buildings.

But make no mistake. Mike J. Walker is an enterprise architect, one with few peers when it comes to being a leader, innovator, and expert in the technology industry.

In the summer of 2012, Walker became director of enterprise architecture at Dell, leaving a successful career behind at Microsoft for a move to the Austin technology company. With leadership positions at Dell and Microsoft on his résumé, as well as many other respected companies, we at Architecture & Governance Magazine sought out Walker to get his thoughts on the industry, with a special emphasis on business architecture. What follows is part 1 of our interview, with part 2 to follow.

A&G: What are your definitions for business and information architectures?

Walker: I really think it’s as simple as this: Business architecture is a disciplined approach for distilling a company’s corporate strategy into an architecture that’s implementable in IT terms. This is rationalized through specific methods, models, and tools. An example of some of these models would be business capability models, OMG motivational models, strategy maps, etc. These are a way for architects to understand what the company wants to do. So BA brings that strategy into something useful and implementable.

Information architecture is again a disciplined practice that consumes a business architecture and finds Part One the information strategy that is required to implement these new capabilities that the business wants to bring on board. Business architecture prescribes the IT capabilities that will be required to define information architecture going forward. So to bring these two together, business architecture helps us understand what the business wants. Information architecture now takes that definition of what the business wants, its goals or objectives and strategies, etc., and says, “Okay, how do we implement this from an IT perspective?”

What this means from an industry perspective is traditionally we’ve been leading with “applications drive the information requirements.” What we’re seeing here is architecturally that’s wrong. Architecturally, if you start with applications, you’re going to miss a lot of the requirements that are needed from the business.

A great example of this is regulatory compliance. If I start with “I want to move to the cloud,” but I haven’t looked at my compliance requirements, most likely I’m going to run into problems with implementation. So that is a very real example of why information architecture should prescribe the IT capabilities and the application architectures that we build.

As you go through the architecting process, you start with business architecture that’s going to define your information architecture, and from there, you start to get into the technology world. From information architecture and behind, it is mostly business oriented; very, very little IT-oriented things. So you’re dealing with “What is the definition of my information?” “How should I classify my information?” “How should it flow?” “What type of resiliency should I have around my information?” A lot of those nonfunctional things will be addressed as well as a lot of the compliance and the security issues.

All of those areas usually link up to areas in the organization that can say “no” to moving forward with an architecture. So, an auditor has the ability to stop a project right where it’s at. If you’re going to break the law because you’re trying to pass information out of Germany and Germany has data summary laws that say your data must stay in Germany, that will be a show stopper. So we start with information architecture so we don’t run into those challenges. A lot of the detailed architecture technology work happens from the application architecture world and below.

A&G: What key models/representations do you think are the best for expressing BA/IA’s?

Walker: For business architecture, you’ll have things like OMG motivational models, value chain models, benefits dependency networks, and business capability models.

In the information architecture world, you’ll have information segmentation models, data dissemination models, and enterprise data models. And to qualify the enterprise data models: An enterprise data model is not an ERD. An ERD represents a physical implementation of the description of the data. This is purely the taxonomy, oncology, of the corporation’s information assets.

Those are the primary ones, although obviously there are a lot more models out there. But those are some good ones that we would use in each discipline. Probably another good one for information architecture would be the data migration models that really go into how data and the life cycle around that data evolves as it goes through our capabilities and our systems.

A&G: Do you believe BA/IA is useful and, if so, what value do you think it might bring to the work of EA practitioners? To the enterprise?

Walker: Generally speaking, the value these activities, these architectural efforts, bring is they’ll be able to understand value. They can understand and realize value in a more repeatable and predictable way. If we don’t go through the process of understanding why the business wants something, how can we get to the point where we are realizing that value that we’re expecting? Business architecture is really translating the needs, the wants, the motivations, and the drivers from the business. If we don’t do that well, the solutions that we deliver won’t match the expectations of our executives and our shareholders.

If we don’t do information architecture well, then we will have sub-optimal solutions to solve the business’s problems. We’ll have higher degrees of risk in our system because we haven’t understood and classified the information that we want, or we don’t understand the way that information should flow within our enterprise. By doing these activities, we are able to elevate the enterprise architecture or practice into a trusted partner for the business.

A&G: What roles should be involved with BA/IA activities?

Walker: It largely depends on the organizational operating model. Typically, you’ll have the role of the enterprise architects who focus on all architectural domains broadly. They have to understand what information architecture is, how to build one, etc.

You’ll also have what I would refer to as domain architects. Domain architects are architects with a specialty. And these architects go really, really deep into their subject areas. For example, you could have an EA that’s wide but very shallow, but then you would have a domain architect, a business architect, and an information architect that are very deep in that discipline. That provides scale in an enterprise architecture department: they can scale these resources. The department relies on these information architects for their deep expertise in those domains—not only how to perform those practices but also the emerging trends in that practice, etc. And that’s typically from an EA perspective of the role.

There are a lot of secondary relationships of people that connect in, like stakeholders, but as far as primary relationships those are the two roles that interact with those disciplines.