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Two IT gurus face off on value of enterprise architecture frameworks

Who says enterprise architecture frameworks are worse than useless? Vivek Kundra, that’s who. The former CIO of the United States made a blistering case against enterprise architecture in his keynote at the 43rd Society for Information Management (SIM) meeting this week. It came in a talk on his efforts to reform the federal IT program with initiatives like IT dashboards and a cloud-first policy. The remarks were especially exciting because they followed a passionate argument for the value of enterprise architecture by John Zachman, an early pioneer of enterprise architecture frameworks.

When an audience member asked Kundra to clarify remarks suggesting that “enterprise architecture was secondary, maybe even tertiary” to the IT discipline, Kundra responded:

“My view is, absolutely architecture is secondary. And the reason is because I am confronting the truth as is, not as I wish it were,” said Kundra, who left his post in August for a fellowship at Harvard.

What idealists get, he contended, are ERP implementations like the one he found as the assistant secretary of commerce and technology for the state of Virginia. The $30 million project was funded by taxpayer money — and had nothing to show but paper two years into the project. “I kept pushing the person [in charge of the project], ‘What did we get, what did we get, what did we get?’ And ultimately it ended up being this book.”

Everybody has lost their way in enterprise architecture, Kundra said, especially enterprise architects. “They focus on documenting the current state or what the future state should be. By the time they are done with their architectural artifact, a new technology has already killed whatever they are working on,” he said.

Zachman, the inventor of The Zachman Framework for Enterprise Architecture, delivered an equally rapid-fire presentation (and with way more jokes), promoting the need for enterprise architecture frameworks. The 76-year-old Zachman argued that the extreme complexity of technology coupled with the extreme rates of change in the information age have made architecture more essential than ever to enterprise computing. IT has always been between a rock and a hard place in designing systems that align with the business. “Hey you guys, we’re never going to be able to produce implementations that are aligned with what you’re thinking about until we have a way to transcribe what you are thinking about,” he said.

IT people confuse building systems — the manufacture of IT products — with architecture. But if the current state of IT has proved anything, it is that anyone can build and run enterprise systems — bolting products upon products as technology and business needs change. Enterprise architecture is about drafting models for systems that will be integrative, flexible, interoperable, reusable and aligned with the enterprise. For people who confuse building and running systems with enterprise architecture, Zachman had this warning: “A cloud is in your future.”

His Zachman framework, more accurately called ontology, is akin to the periodic table. It is a schema or classification that requires architects to answer what, how, where, when and why, and thus to describe what they intend to build — before they build. “You get flexibility by separating the entities, and you don’t build until you are ready to build.”

Kundra made a polite nod to the guru of the Zachman framework, stating that he and Zachman were in agreement that architecture must not become “dogmatic.” Kundra comes at enterprise architecture from a business perspective. “But I have huge disdain for architects and the practice of architecture where all you are producing is paper that nobody ever reads.”

By the way, Kundra did not get off scot-free, fielding several questions — and pointed criticism — on the government’s track record on security during his reign. Who says rubber chicken events have to be bland?