Gartner’s Emergent Architecture – Is this really a new approach?

by | August 15, 2009

On August 11th, Gartner announced a “new approach for enterprise architecture” that they labelled “Emergent Architecture”.  I got a chance to read some responses from Todd Biske, Mike Rollings, and Dion Hinchcliffe.  Thanks for the great insights and commentary.

In the press release, Bruce Robertson, Gartner Research VP states the two characteristics of “Emergent EA”:

  1. “Architect the lines, not the boxes – which means managing the connections between the different parts of the business rather than the actual parts of the business themselves.”
  2. “It models all relationships as interactions via some set of interfaces, which can be informal and manual”

On characteristic 1. is if you only look at the connections between parts of the business, how can you look for opportunities to reduce complexity, increase efficiency and implement reusability? I believe enterprise architecture is about the whole organization and its environment, not just pieces of it. As an example, our EA practice encompasses IT Service Management (ITIL), Business Analysis (BA) and Program Management (PMO).

On characteristic 2. , again all this says to me is to take a “user experience” approach to describing the architecture. This is nothing new as far as I can tell … perhaps I am missing something?

Now to look at the 7 properties that differentiate “emergent architecture” from “traditional EA”.

  1. Non-deterministic – “… decentralize decision making to enable innovation”.  I don’t see this as anything new. We address this with our technology lifecycle and our technology governance models. We ensure our architecture has a place for innovation in the R&D phase of the technology lifecycle and in the Innovative area of our technology governance.
  2. Autonomous actors – “… devolve control to constituients”.  Being that we grew our EA practice out of IT and that I was a one person team, I never was able to “control all aspects of architecture”.  Working collaboratively, within a technology governance framework allows autonomy based on funding, support and impact our practice influenced the architecture adopted by our community. Again, I do not see how this is different from our existing EA practice. Implementing data stewardship in our business areas is an example of autonomous acting within our EA.
  3. Rule bound actors – “… define a minimal set of rules and enable choice”. What EA practice has not started with some set of guiding principles? Enabling choice is fundamental within an architecture as long as it respects the established guiding principles. I blogged on this here and here.
  4. Goal oriented actors – “… each constituient acting in their own best interest”. I completely disagree with this one. How does an organization move forward if each of the parts are pulling in separate directions? This is one of the reasons enterprise architecture came into existence. Especially in today’s economy, I know our organization can not afford to have silos of architecture created because it is in a group’s or department’s best interest without considering the overall goals of the organization.
  5. Local Influences – “… EA must increasingly coordinate”.  Nothing new here, we have always needed to provide the enterprise view and coordinate information across our organizations.  This really speaks to the communication mandate of an EA practice. Here are blogs on EA communication by Serge Thorn and Todd Biske.
  6. Dynamic or Adaptive Systems – “… design emergent systems sense and respond to changes in their environment”.  Isn’t this just planning?  We publish a Technology Plan which is a 3 year plan for technology adoption. We consider strategic planning assumptions from our senior leaders, environmental scans of trends in various higher education, human resources, technology and environmental areas and annually update the plan. Sorry but I do not see anything new here.
  7. Resource Contrained Environment – “… the scarcity of resources drives emergence”.  Talk about stating the obvious! We have always been in a resource constrained environment; that is why I consistently work on “practical approaches” to enterprise architecture.  We use standard office software and lightweight databases, leverage our existing capabilities and communicate, communicate, communicate!

So after all is said and done, I don’t see anything new here but a confirmation that we are already doing some to the right things in a practical way to move our organizations forward using enterprise architecture practices. Looking forward to your observations.

11 thoughts on “Gartner’s Emergent Architecture – Is this really a new approach?

  1. John Townsend

    At the risk of being ungenerous, I would say that Gartner are stating the (fairly) obvious & just wonder how it took them so long to arrive at these pearls of wisdom! Certainly within HE – & I’d be surprised if this didn’t pertain elsewhere – EA never was & never could have been about top-down control & rigid enforcement of a corporate architecture, & neither should it have been. The middle-out approach is a good one but also hardly knew, having synergies with Japanese management styles, & if you take it that this is about facilitation/coordination not control/compliance then it also has synergies with the kinds of approaches to IT governance promoted by Ross & Weill ie encouraging effective behaviours in the use of IT.

    At the same time there seems to be a suggestion that the ’emergent’ approach should allows constituent parts of the organisation to do their own thing – in which event, EA may become so light touch as to vanish into thin air. If you go down this line you have to reach a point where there’s no point doing EA at all.

    So overall, I suppose I’m not impressed!

  2. LeodeSousa Post author

    Thanks very much for the feedback John. It will be interesting to see how Gartner reacts to the comments on their “new” approach. We are a Gartner subscriber and as content gets published, I will share. Cheers!

  3. Shepard Towindo

    Without repeating what all of you have said, I recommend Gartner to pull back. There is nothing new about what they are describing as new EA approach, most of this is common EA best practices happening today, on planet earth.

    My favorite property is the “Autonomous actor”, EA has always delegated the details to delivery teams.


  4. LeodeSousa Post author

    If I ever tried terms like “Autonomous actor”and “Inversion of Control” on my senior leadership, I would be 1) laughed out of the room or 2) looking for a new job.

    Practical EA approaches use business English!

    Thanks for reading the post and taking time to comment. Leo

  5. Pingback: Is Enterprise Architecture Emergent? - The Next Big Thing -

  6. Jon Ayre

    It never ceases to amaze me that when people finally realise how to do something properly (after doing it wrongly for so long) they always assume that they are the only ones who know, and rush to tell the rest of the world that they have just rediscovered the wheel. I have no problem with people describing best practices, but to refer to it as something new or emergent is somewhat naive and demonstrates a lack of understanding of what is happening in the real world (which surprises me for Gartner as they are in the position to know what is going on).

    The Enterprising Architect

    1. LeodeSousa Post author

      Jon, Absolutely bang on. Thanks for the visit. I too am amazed that Gartner would not have floated this as a trial balloon first with some real practioners before such a big announcement. Cheers! Leo

  7. DT

    Jon, Absolutely bang on. Thanks for the visit. I too am amazed that Gartner would not have floated this as a trial balloon first with some real practioners before such a big announcement. Cheers! Leo

  8. John Wu

    From the aspect of complexity science. this approach does make sense. I have developed the Light Enterprise Archtiecture from a very grass root approach without knowing the complexity science. Recently, I have encounterd the complexity science and realized that I have walked into the paradigm of a complex adaptive system. I believe this is also why the Gartner Group make the move.

    Enterprise is a complex adaptive system

    Wikipeida describe as ” The term complex adaptive systems, or complexity science, is often used to describe the loosely organized academic field that has grown up around the study of such systems. Complexity science is not a single theory— it encompasses more than one theoretical framework and is highly interdisciplinary, seeking the answers to some fundamental questions about living, adaptable, changeable systems.

    Examples of complex adaptive systems include the stock market, social insect and ant colonies, the biosphere and the ecosystem, the brain and the immune system, the cell and the developing embryo, manufacturing businesses and any human social group-based endeavour in a cultural and social system such as political parties or communities. There are close relationships between the field of CAS and artificial life. In both areas the principles of emergence and self-organization are very important.

    The ideas and models of CAS are essentially evolutionary, grounded in modern biological views on adaptation and evolution. The theory of complex adaptive systems bridges developments of systems theory with the ideas of generalized Darwinism, which suggests that Darwinian principles of evolution can explain a range of complex material phenomena, from cosmic to social objects. ”

    Enterprise is a complex adaptive system

    1. Leo de Sousa Post author

      John, thank you for the insight. I will take a look at the links you provided. Interestingly enough, my BSc was in the field of Biology and perhaps that grounding has been an unconscious influence on my thinking about Enterprise Architecture as an ecosystem.

      All the best, Leo


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