Architecture – a way of thinking about information and enterprise

Why do we use “architecture” as a term to describe our discipline?

The notion of architecture as a way of thinking about information and enterprise started in the late 1970s. In particular, the writings of Richard Saul Wurman, Richard Nolan, and Christopher Alexander first suggested applying this way of thinking to understand information and information systems, and their growing importance to organizations and business.

Richard Saul Wurman trained as an architect. He became interested in how information is gathered, organised and presented to convey meaning. Combining his two interests, he coined the term Information Architecture in 1975. Wurman’s 1975 definition was “organising the patterns in data, making the complex clear”. [Wurman is best known for founding TED – Ideas Worth Spreading.] This is one of the earliest references to architecture as a way to manage information or enterprise.

Note that Wurman did not call it Enterprise Architecture. He called it Information Architecture because we use information as the prime tool for managing enterprise architectures. We gather information about applications, software, technologies, processes, data, etc., and by organising this information in a structured manner (i.e. architecting information) we manage the enterprise architecture itself. Stephan Haeckel was later to refer to this, using a comparison with jet aircraft, as “managing by wire”.

I came across Wurman’s ideas in the early 1980s, and like many others I was keen to develop a holistic approach for managing information systems and the use of information in a business and organizational context. Adopting Wurman’s label, in 1984 I started calling myself an Information Architect. However, twenty years later the term was adopted by Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, who used it to define their work structuring large-scale websites and intranets. “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites” was a timely guide and became very popular, but it also gave Wurman’s term a narrower focus.

Also in the 1970s, Richard L. Norton developed the stages-of-growth model, and published in the Harvard Business Review. This is a theoretical model to describe the growth of information technology (IT) in a business or organization. By 1979 there were 6 stages in this model: from Initiation, through Contagion, Control, Integration, and Administration, to Maturity. [Note this model is not the same as the later Capability Maturity Model.]

As an organization progresses up the stages of growth, it treats information more as a resource, regards information systems as being much broader than just IT, and raises the importance of IT management to the same level as the directors of finance or human resources. Norton frequently used the analogy with architecture to explain this broader, more holistic view of information, supported by technology, for the benefit of the business and the organization.

Christopher Alexander, another (building) architect, is noted for his theories about design. He coined the term “pattern language”, designed to empower anyone to think about architectural issues. He reasoned that users know more about a building and its use than the architect. Together, users and architects could describe architectural systems using pattern language, in a form that a theoretical mathematician or computer scientist might call a generative grammar.

The idea of a pattern language was widely adopted in software engineering, initially in object oriented methodologies, and has formed a key part of enterprise architecture thinking (for example, see my report on Enterprise Patterns). Once again we can see that a pattern language uses information about a subject area as a tool to manage the subject itself.

The early writings of Wurman, Nolan and Alexander were instrumental in many of the early metaphors used to describe the discipline of enterprise architects. Although they never referred to our discipline as Enterprise Architecture, they laid the foundations for thinking in an architectural way about information and enterprise.