This article was published in the Ergon Magazine SMART insights 2021. Order your free copy now ->
Digitalisation is advancing area by area across the corporate world. Yet without IT architecture management, businesses can't keep up with the pace of innovation long term. Architecture touches everything. Get it right and you can respond very quickly to emerging demand without putting the flexibility and security of your applications at risk. This demands a joint effort from a company's management, IT and business departments.
Speed, ease, flexibility and constant availability are what customers expect of their interactions with you. That's impossible without the latest IT. Soon, that will be true no matter what your sector. Banking is a prime example here as it faces what is likely one of the biggest revolutions in its long history. Fintechs are developing new products and services. Banks that have grown the conventional way are now adding third-party packages to their offerings. Some of these are almost as regulated as the banks themselves, some much less. “Open banking” fuses these developments together.
Retailing is also front and centre when it comes to digitalisation. As technology grows in importance, multi-channel capability is no longer a vision but the new standard. Customers want to decide for themselves how and where they look into new products; how and where they buy those products; and how they get answers to questions that arise only once they've got them home. With smartphones, browsers, branches and call centres all in the mix, retail companies need an IT landscape that can cope with the diversity and complexity of shopping in the digital age.
“It's not about big successes but about continuity and knowing what your users need.”
Most sectors are in much the same boat when it comes to the challenges of digitalisation. They differ only in the progress they have made to date. Companies nowadays can use all manner of means to pass the digitalization test. Examples include cloud computing, the latest collaboration tools, new paradigms and approaches to software such as a close mesh of development, security and operations. No matter what the choice, the IT architecture provides the foundation.
IT architecture delineates how a company creates and builds something. Static frameworks are not up to the job here. IT architecture, meanwhile, represents scope. It evolves – has to evolve – along with the changing demands on the business. The world is becoming more complex and IT is no exception. The number of point-to-point connections between systems is on the rise, for instance, while we observe a decline in the quality of business process documentation and the number of services being reused. This sort of complexity isn't just the short-term hangover from implementing a digitalization project, however. It's here to stay, as companies extend pilot projects and applications to cover more tasks and more areas of their business.
Contemporary – but a step ahead
Where a company manages its IT architecture appropriately, it keeps system complexity under control and can respond swiftly and flexibly to the changing needs of the market. Well thought through IT architecture makes it easy to use an AI-based service from a cloud to resolve a specific issue, for example. To do this, the company itself does not need any great depth of knowledge about artificial intelligence, much less the algorithm itself. With today's architecture management, integrating a robo advisor is also a relatively simple matter. There are decisions to be made of course: What interfaces do I need? What data from what applications does a device need? How can I get hold of upto-date data? What transmission technology is used? And how can I prevent unauthorised access? Yet with functioning IT architecture management, answering those questions is easy.
Blurring departmental boundaries
For an IT architecture to really fit a company, it has to cover and coordinate a variety of functions and processes. Old technologies and old ways of thinking, reflected in internal structures and IT set-ups, often get in the way of fast, cost-efficient action and reaction. Silos are another factor here – structures, systems and processes perfectly tailored to a given department but closed off from the rest of the company. If your company has several of these optimised standalone departments, customer demand for a smooth company-wide service is going to be a major challenge. There are opposing needs here. The IT architecture must provide suitable solutions to support real-world operations in each area. At the same time, it must satisfy criteria such as onward development flexibility and security. Of course, while departmental needs overlap in certain respects, they differ significantly in others. Recognising and sharing the commonalities saves costs and enables companies to establish customer-centric processes across departmental boundaries. IT architecture managers can help to balance interests here because they need the different parts of the architecture to work together but do not represent any specific department themselves.
“The most important, and hardest, thing is to establish open, trust-based working relationships between departmental representatives and IT.”
Business and IT hand in hand
Open, trust-based working relationships lay the groundwork for an IT architecture that successfully encompasses all elements of a company's business. That's why you’ll often find interdisciplinary architecture teams that are not drawn purely from IT. This allows all concerned to pool not only their knowledge but also their interests directly. An IT department that understands the business side well can prove a useful advisor on general IT requirements and new technological trends. Another important task for IT is to point out cost implications. Changes such as greater flexibility or faster release cycles have their price, after all but the resulting costs must always be seen in relation to the practical benefit.
Without going into technical details, shared working tools and visualisations make life easier for the architecture team. It can be helpful, for example, to have a clear visualisation of the operating landscape that shows applications and their dependencies. Business processes should be recognisable from those applications.
That's not always easy to do. Quite apart from the time involved, it helps to encourage key individuals and management to think from a different angle. Work on any given IT architecture can only deliver if there is transparency. And creating that transparency may be new territory for some.
IT architecture is a broad field but you still have to show that work is beginning to pay off if you are to secure the long-term support of management. It's common when setting up an architecture team to be overwhelmed by the number of issues at hand. That's the time to set clear priorities that are based on the company’s strategy and aimed at responding swiftly to what the customer wants. Both the most urgent and the most readily implementable needs should be tackled first. Enjoy those first successes, then build on their momentum. Nothing stands still today, including IT architecture, and that's just one of the reasons to keep moving forward, and to monitor progress and opportunities continuously. If you do that, architecture work will eventually become routine. It’s not about big successes here but about continuity and knowing what your users need. Whether they're in finance, retailing or another sector, your customers will thank you.
This article was written by Michael Bolliger, Lead Architect & Consultant, and Florian Bosshart, Senior Consultant.