December 10, 2007

An Ant Colony and Enterprise Architecture

User-centric enterprise architecture supplies critical business and technical information to the end users in the organization to enhance IT planning, governance, and overall decision-making. When developed and communicated effectively, EA is a tremendous information asset to the organization that aids the enterprise in making sound IT investment decisions, aligning technology to mission, and enhancing results of operation.

In the book The Art of War for Executives by Donald G. Krause, the author shows that Sun Tzu’s model for effective, or what he calls “Natural Organizations,” is based on their existence to serve a specific purpose, their information-centered capability, and their adaptability. All of which are highly supportive of the need for a strong EA!

  1. Defined purpose—enterprises need to have a clear mission and this is supported by an enterprise architecture that captures performance outcomes, mission functions, process, activities, and tasks, and seeks to provide the information required to perform those.
  2. Information-centered—“organizations seek and use data as a basis for action. They avoid unwarranted opinion and conjecture, choosing to deal with uncertainty by estimating reasonable probabilities.” Enterprise with a strong EA, with useful and useable information products, have the requisite information to base meaningful decisions on.
  3. Adaptability—“organizations respond quickly and effectively to changes in their environment.” Setting realistic EA targets and transition plans help an organization first of all assess their environment and then to make requisite plans to address change.

Ant colonies are an example of effective organizations that rely on EA-like capabilities:

“Ant colonies have survived for hundreds of millions of years. They exist solely for the purpose of providing food and shelter to its members…are totally information-centered (seeking information about food and shelter and transmitting that to others in the organization), and adapt by changing location and methods to take advantage of opportunities discovered by members.” (adapted from The Art of War For Executives)

While human organizations are obviously more complex than ant colonies and survive by more than simply the search for food and shelter, the simile is apropos:

  • When applied to Sun Tzu’s army, their philosophy for success hinged, like the ant colony, on their ability to come together for a defined purpose, in their case to handle whatever threat or opportunity arose.
  • Sun Tzu’s superior commanders were information-centered, succeeding “in situations where ordinary people fail because they obtain more timely information and use it more quickly,”—they gather, process, use, and give out information.
  • The adaptability of Sun Tzu’s army, enabled them to “respond quickly and adapt readily to changing circumstances…like water, they flow around obstacles and challenges, always seeking to follow the most effective path.”

Like the tried and true success factors for Sun Tzu’s army or the regimented, age-old ant colonies found around the world, organizations succeed through defined purpose, information-centricity, and flexibility. And EA, as a discipline, assists in all of these: focusing and magnifying an organization’s purpose through a well documented and communicated architecture; ensuring information discovery and exchange—often through technology—to support business processes; helping an organization to readily adapt and change through the establishment of targets and transition plans to remain competitive and successful in the marketplace.

From an information perspective, efficient organizations mimic organizations with strong EA’s:

  • Organizations “much like new computer chips…create a greater number of channels to move information faster. They also reduce system overhead by reducing unnecessary intramural data requirements (e.g. interoffice memos, unused reports). They increase system response by obtaining more and higher quality information; by training organization members to use information properly; by ensuring that organization members have quick access to data and allowing them to make and execute informed decision based on information; and by efficiently transmitting information to organization members and outsiders.

In large measure, information is at the center of an EA program. EA information is used for helping organization end-users make better IT decisions, and technology investments helps provide information better, faster, and cheaper to support the mission. Like an ant colony survives on information, an organization’s very survival can depend on timely and actionable information.


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