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From Office Tools to Enterprise Architecture

by Bunny Tharpe       • March 31, 2016

In Enterprise Architecture (EA), Office tools often act as an easy entry point to the discipline. In most cases, low maturity EA initiatives make use of the tools they already have

Excel, Powerpoint, Word and Visio are often used in faux-tandem – meaning documents from any or all of the four suites are often bolted on together without any way to effectively manage them, and what was initially a quick fix can quickly turn into a long headache.

So why do people settle for the MS Office approach?

In short, people use Microsoft Office tools in place of recognized EA tools because they’re quick and easy to get started with. It’s easy to get a copy and/or a license, the learning curve is small, and thanks to its use in early education, a lot of people are familiar with it already.

Visio, Powerpoint, Excel: short-term gains versus long-term maintenance issues

However, as with many key business decisions, whether or not an organization should move away from Office Tools into something more comprehensive, presents a trade-off that decision makers must consider. Many smaller businesses for example, might not see any real reason to mature their Enterprise Architecture approach, and could survive dealing with their Architecture on an adhoc basis.

However, any growing organization, or organization with ambitions to grow will find that the Office Tools approach to EA can hastily become unsustainable. The most common issue for such businesses is trouble connecting data.

The reality of trying to blend a medley of different tools and pieces of software is always more messy hodgepodge, than it is a palatable smorgasbord. Even in the Office approach, whereby tools are all united under one banner and brand, each part of the Office Suite is essentially a separate entity. They can’t ‘talk’ to one another, they can’t update and respond to changes in one another, and their formats are often incompatible. They must all be maintained in isolation.

This alone can open a Pandora’s box of related issues. Once such being that, if one person is maintaining the architecture, then that person’s workload is increased as they have to make updates across the assortment of tools. Adversely, if the organization’s architecture is maintained by more than one person, the lack of communication between the tools will also create a barrier to collaboration between the team.

EA Naming Difference Complications

In the example above, confusion may arise as to whether SAP and AP refer to the same components. Even minor discrepancies like this can stall progress, and often, the reality is much worse. Then there are the issues of maintaining unregulated standards in Visio, as well as aligning Visio itself with Spreadsheets.

Adding all of this to the greater potential for miscommunication, lost/dead links, updates falling out of sync, and differences between how individuals make and keep records, it’s not hard to see why the Office Tools approach to EA can quickly snowball out of control.

Businesses can often get to the point where different diagrams, analyses and other data representations pertaining to the architecture of the organization are made in varying areas of the business, and when the time comes for them to be compared and correlated, they don’t always line up.

The Alternative? Agile Enterprise Architecture

If you haven’t ran into any of the aforementioned problems, you might be thinking an alternative is unnecessary. But as alluded to earlier, the issues that plague low maturity Enterprise Architecture in repurposed tools will inevitability be surfaced as the business grows.

A business with a wider reach, will have more data to keep track of, and more critical decisions to make regarding the architecture of the business. Relying on immature EA in light of this is naive at best, and downright irresponsible at worst.

Unsurprisingly though, the alternative to these enterprise architecture headaches, is a tool designed from the ground up to handle Enterprise Architecture. A tool that natively supports drawing diagrams, roadmaps, analysis and kanbans, and a tool that recognizes and accounts for the iterative and collaborative nature of the discipline.

What issues could I run into?

Perhaps the biggest issue is that of budget. Traditional EA tools often occupied Ivory Towers in terms of their accessibility. This made them hard pitches for stakeholders, as the benefits of the tools were difficult to convey to those who wouldn’t be using them. And on top of that, most tools were costly, making it look an even less appealing investment if the Enterprise Architecture department wasn’t at the later stages of maturity, and able to make full use of the suite.

Add this to the looming threat of installation costs (financial, time, etc.), and maintenance costs, those totally out of control hodgepodges of Powerpoint slides, Excel sheets and other documents start to look a little more manageable.

Historically, the gap between EA immaturity, and maturity, was simply too far to bridge.

However, more modern, more agile EA tools have tackled these issues. Lower price points mean even small to medium sized businesses (SMBs) can now afford to enjoy the benefits. SaaS-based EA tools even avoid the hefty initial fees and on site maintenance, as their web-based nature doesn’t require anything to be installed.

Additionally, web-based tools hurdle concerns pertaining to platform. Users are free to use the operating system of their choice, and still benefit from the same level of collaboration as if the organization were exclusively using Windows-based PCs.

This even extends to mobile devices, so that you can take your Enterprise Architecture on the go.

With support for importing data from other tools considered, modern, agile EA tools even eliminate much of the down time in productivity associated with moving to new systems. Once a login is created, the platform is already ready to go.

Those with strong, native support for collaboration excel here, too. This can ensure all the relevant stakeholders can be involved in EA schemes and projects on the front line – through real time multi-user updates and in tool comment and suggestion support. license types accounting for this are available too, with pay for what you use pricing models making collaboration affordable with dedicated ‘user’ and ‘reviewer’ license types.

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