Enterprise architecture: Lessons from the carving board

Everyone knows that there's a correct way to carve poultry into parts. In fact, basic carving methods haven't changed much since the time of the Roman Empire a couple of thousand years ago. If you want to be considered a great cook, you need to learn these ancient lessons. For chickens, it usually sounds something like this:

Place the chicken on the cutting board. Pull the leg away from the body and cut through the joint between the leg and the body to separate the leg. Place the chicken leg on the cutting board. Cut through the joint to separate the drumstick from the thigh. ...

Enterprise Architecture Lesson No. 1: When defining the start and end points of enterprise business processes and the scope of their supporting enterprise applications, cut through the joints.

This is the Natural Boundaries Principle and the concept of loose coupling applied to the enterprise level. The Natural Boundaries Principle is one of the most important enterprise architecture principles. It goes something like this: "Design systems around natural boundaries of business processes and data, tight-coupling within and loose coupling between." Business process and system scope, especially enterprise business process and enterprise system scope should not be arbitrary. Look for the joints, places where your enterprise chicken bends!

If you ignore natural breakpoints when carving either poultry or enterprise business processes and supporting systems into parts, it is really messy. One of the most obvious symptoms of improper enterprise carving methods is a messy multitude of interfaces. Another symptom is enterprise projects that are significantly delayed because they have to figure out how to deal with that messy multitude of interfaces.

If you get the natural boundaries right, it simplifies the number and complexity of interfaces. It also enables loose coupling between enterprise applications. This lowers costs by reducing complexity and redundant data and increases flexibility by maximizing autonomy between systems. Lower costs, increased flexibility. That's why the Natural Boundaries Principle is so important to your enterprise.

So how do we find the natural breakpoints in our enterprise business processes and systems? Well, you can't see the parts without looking at the whole. It's a basic engineering design principle. We have to "take a gander" at our enterprise goose, the whole thing. That's why enterprise architecture includes the development of enterprise business process and data models.

Avoid spending a lifetime creating the models of your enterprise with 20 people locked up in conference rooms filled with flip-chart wallpaper. Take advantage of what's already available from industry associations. Do some internal and external research to find models you can refine and utilize. Take a look at how market-leading software companies modularize their suite of solutions in each functional area, because that's where you're most likely to get your chicken parts from.

Take a look at the list of data elements that are flowing across the key interfaces in your main enterprise applications. If there's a ton of data elements or columns of data on an interface, you probably have the boundaries wrong. It's OK to have tons of rows or records flowing between systems -- that's just a symptom of a large enterprise. "Skinny pipes," or a small number of data elements flowing across interfaces, is a sign of correct boundaries. If most of the data elements in one system need to be in the other, then something is wrong with the boundary between the two.

While you're working on your natural boundaries, make sure you work on clear definitions of the business processes and data within each boundary.

Enterprise Architecture Lesson No. 2: Natural breakpoints or boundaries are similar for similar organizations.

The basic components of poultry don't change much between a turkey, chicken, grouse or partridge. (They don't even differ if the partridge is in a pear tree.) If boundaries are similar between organizations, then they're likely to become standardized at some point. In these days of billions of flash-frozen, boneless, skinless poultry parts shipping around the world, there are even some international standards around for poultry parts. From the United Nations Economic Commission: "A 'drumstick' is produced by cutting a whole leg through the joint between the tibia and femur. The thigh is removed. The drumstick consists of the drumstick and patella." It also turns out there's something called a chicken paw, but I didn't see anything called a chicken finger, so I'm not sure what we're dipping into ranch dressing at the strip mall.

My belief is that standards will emerge in the commercial software industry that define natural boundaries for us, just like poultry parts have definitions. At that point, software components will become easily interchangeable, even the modules of the big enterprise application suites. Not everyone is going to help make that happen, but whoever gets on that bandwagon first is going to sell the most software chicken parts.

Enterprise Architecture Lesson No. 3: Boundaries don't change based on size of the organization.

The basic components of poultry don't change because the turkey is small or it's one of those 35-pounders that your grandmother got up at 3 a.m. to put into the oven. However, if you're a small enterprise, it's possible you'll combine multiple enterprise business process "parts" into a system solution. But it's very important to know that you're doing that. Make sure you put the whole chicken leg into the solution and not part of the thigh and part of the drumstick. As your organization grows and you discover you need to split up the chicken-leg application to allow for more flexibility or scale, break it back into the thigh and drumstick!

You can ignore the "joints" of your organization when carving up your enterprise business processes and supporting applications. But it takes a lot more effort in the long run, both for the carver and for users consuming the results.

A note to the wary: When you carve poultry, it's already dead and it doesn't have much to say about the matter. In a living, breathing enterprise, there's going to be some kicking and screaming involved. The cookbooks remind us to have a very sharp knife and to bear down when cutting down through the joints. For enterprise architecture carving, that means you need the sharp knife of executive sponsorship -- and you can't be a chicken.

So, if you can stand the heat, I'll see you in the enterprise kitchen!

Melissa Cook is a management consultant and the author of Building Enterprise Information Architectures, published by Prentice-Hall. Previously, she was at Hewlett-Packard Co. for 20 years. She can be reached at macookcorp@aol.com or through www.melissacook.com.

Related links:

The Enterprise Architecture Challenge: Integration

Enterprise Architecture -- Lessons From the Laundry Room

Data Hubs Boost Business Integration

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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