The ‘Systems-Thinking’ Enterprise Architect

Even with the best and most complete of models and frameworks, the practice of Enterprise Architecture (EA) in organisations isn’t always effective. Analysis does not always explain everything that happens, and changes that Enterprise Architects (EAs) make do not always deliver the expected benefits.  When EA does not deliver value as expected, or when it cannot be represented as a transparent cause and effect relationship, some EA defenders draw our attention to long delays in the enterprise’s adoption of information technology.  In light of this, EA should be thought of as an investment against things that might otherwise go wrong — kind of like a ‘flu shot for 2025.  Other apologists blame flaws in the EA frameworks and methods used, or in the way that they are used.

The field of Information Systems (IS) research takes a different approach, and is roughly based on the view of organisations as open (not closed) systems, in which cause and effect are rarely and at best distantly related, and where things happen because of a multitude of unpredictable, environmental, and social reasons.  Systems Thinking sits roughly between the ordered world of the architected enterprise, and the dis-orderly real world of human existence and experience that the IS crowd study.  Systems Thinking perceives systems in the broadest sense amidst the seeming chaos and unpredictability of open, socio-technical interplays.  There is a long history of people arguing that IS and Systems Thinking belong somehow together.

Things get interesting when Enterprise Architects start talking and thinking in terms of Systems Thinking.  Both areas are concerned with seeing order in chaos, and both demand the application of a certain amount of structure to the problem.  But whereas EA is deconstructive (meaning is derived by successively decomposing things into ever smaller pieces), Systems Thinking is selectively constructive (systems emerge when you selectively put elements and phenomena of the environment together to recognise known archetypes).  Insightful Enterprise Architects who turn to the art and science of Systems Thinking should benefit from an alternative systems perspective on how IT-enabled change plays out within and between organisations.


EAs are familiar with the notion of system.  In Systems Thinking, everything is a system, and all systems have behaviours and rules. Most important systems are complex and exhibit unexpected emergent behaviours that go far beyond simple case-effect relationships. If you want to find out more about Systems Thinking, its origins, theory and practice, themes and patterns, have a look at the work of Donella Meadows, Peter Senge and Russell Ackoff.

For the moment, let’s try to describe some of the key differences between EA and ST.  The diagram to the right is a systems diagram that represents things (labels) and dependencies between things.  The letter ‘s’ indicates that the two things at the ends of the dependency move in the same direction (direction of influence).  The letter ‘o’ indicates opposite (direction of influence).  The parallel bars represent a delay.

The diagram represents an attempt to capture the essence of traditional EA.  It is read as follows.  Increasing (decreasing) ‘EA investment’ leads to increased (decreased) ‘Enterprise compliance’ subject to delay(s).  In other words, the more effort you invest in EA the higher the compliance of the organisation’s systems to the reference or target Enterprise Architecture will be.  Conversely, less effort will lessen the rate of increase of compliance.  This part of the ‘model driven EA ‘system’ enforces the primacy of the ‘model’, or to-be (target, reference) enterprise architecture.

Increasing ‘Enterprise compliance’ leads to increasing ‘Benefits to the organisation’ subject to delay(s).  In other words, the EA model represents nirvana, or as close to correctness as is humanly possible at a point in time.  And the closer the enterprise gets to it, the more the benefits will be realised.  This virtuous cycle continues.  Increasing ‘Enterprise compliance’ leads to decreasing ‘EA investment’, because eventually, the gap between as-is and to-be decreases, and alignment is achieved.

The traditional EA ‘model-driven’ system represents a kind of engine for which startup costs are high but after a period of running, the costs decrease to a steady-state.  In the startup phase, increasing ‘EA investment’ requires an increase in ‘EA service capacity’ (i.e. Enterprise Architects, Solution Architects who understand the target enterprise architecture, and resources such as repositories and models).  Further, the speed of ramp-up is dependent on the capacity of the EA capability (team, resources), amongst other things.    Of course, this simple system dos not allow for change in the model (the to-be architecture), and we know that in real organisations this change is mostly incremental, sometimes transformational, and always continuous.

Systems Thinking is less about heavy lifting (investing for a corresponding return) and more about recognising systems behaviours and applying interventions at the points of leverage to get the systems behaviours we desire.  Whereas the Enterprise Architect might excavate a large hole in the ground to create a new lake, and then wait to see if the body of water attracts ducks, the Systems Thinker diverts an existing stream to a shallow pond where ducks are known to stop by in wet weather. The Systems Thinking Enterprise Architect recognises what structures are likely to exhibit particular behaviours, and what conditions release those behaviours — and where possible, designs structures and conditions to realise desired outcomes or discourage harmful ones.  The diagram below illustrates sustainable Systems Thinking in the context of the enterprise.


‘Systems awareness’ and ‘Successful interventions’ are the key elements of this system.  Increasing (decreasing) ‘Systems awareness’ (structures, behaviours, conditions) leads to more (less) frequent ‘Successful interventions’.  More frequent ‘Successful interventions’ lead to increasing ‘Benefits to the organisation’.  More frequent ‘Successful interventions’ lead to increasing ‘Systems awareness’ as the system and the various options for interventions are understood.  Increasing ‘Systems awareness’ requires an increase in Systems capability (not capacity).  Adding more Systems Thinkers to the team will not help.  Adding resources to the interventions is better practice.

This Systems Thinking approach addresses technology-mediated change. Enterprise Architects need to be talking less about enterprise re engineering, transformation and compliance, and more about ecology, equilibrium, and balance-preserving interventions. Sure, some experienced Enterprise Architects and EA teams at the top of their game are already thinking in these terms, without possibly being aware of Systems Thinking.  The argument for engaging with Systems Thinking is made deliberately provocative to drive discussion and reaction.  Where change is most needed is in the hard-nosed EA frameworks and methods schools that continue to associate increasing success with increasing resourcing, adherence to method, ‘EA maturity’ (as if the enterprise were a factory) and police-like enforcement.  Those days are over.  Systems Thinking offers Enterprise Architecture the opportunity to do less traditional enterprise heavy-lifting and more targeted inter-mediation, for the greater benefit for all.


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