Systems and EA

How does systems thinking really apply to enterprise architecture

One of the things I like most about the festive season is the chance to reset – there’s space and time to think about what happened in the previous year, what the future might bring, and most of all – time to spend with the special people in your life.

This year it was also a good opportunity to catch up with some reading about EA. One indicator that EA is becoming better established and accepted as a vital profession is that have been a growing number of publications and writings on the subject in recent years. Which is great – but it takes longer to read them all and keep up-to-date with the latest thinking.

Systems and systems thinking has always been very closely linked with Enterprise Architecture – certainly for the clients that I have worked with. That connection has been reinforced with a series of books published over the last few years; in particular, these were on my reading list over the holiday period:

I enjoyed reading both books, and there is a lot of good material within them.

But there are a couple of points that need to be emphasized:

  • Systems thinking is not a new way of thinking about EA. Leading enterprise architects have incorporated systems thinking into their approach for many years now. Information FrameWork (IFW) was based partly around the value in exploring systems using architectural thinking. The systemic nature of enterprise architecture is one of its core characteristics.
  • While it is true that there are many different EA frameworks, it is misleading to suggest that there is little in the way of a universal foundation for EA. A discipline with more than 40 years of definition and growth is more likely to have a significant and strong foundation! The synthesis of this knowledge and experience into a universal foundation or framework is ongoing, but clearly evident. This was a clear theme in the book Elaine and I wrote in 2003 (and the 2nd edition in 2015), and the emergence of a universal meta-framework is something we can expect over the next few years. I hope that our research into eight fundamental factors that are common to all EA approaches and frameworks will be a valuable input to an EA meta framework.
  • Systems thinking and EA thinking are distinct types of understanding. While systems thinking can certainly support and contribute to architectural thinking, the two are separate disciplines. Writing on this subject sometimes suggests that systems thinking is a new way of thinking about EA, rather than fully explaining the independence and interdependence between the two approaches. For example, both of the books listed above refer to enterprise architecture extensively, but the true relationship between the two disciplines is never fully explained, and there is little reference to how techniques from the two disciplines can supplement one another.

I’ll come back to this last point in my next blog, when I describe the levels of architectural understanding.