Building Blocks, Foundations, & Enterprise Architectures

Languages (spoken, visual, mathematical, etc.) exist because they are the building blocks for communication, understanding, and ultimately, relationships. Relationships form the foundation for social networks, communities, strategic partnerships, and more complex systems. These systems, and the interaction of within and across such systems, is a basis for life and living.

The problem is, the definition and conceptual understanding of these building blocks, foundations, and higher-level systems often does not exist. As a result, technology development efforts, strategic partnerships, marketing campaigns, and the like suffer from a lack of true coordination and comprehension.

In general, identifying building blocks, establishing foundations, and defining more complex systems and interactions is critical to advancement in this world. In most cases, establishing these foundations is a much needed platform for coordination and comprehension that supports achievement of a higher objective. In other cases, attempting to define abstract concepts and inherently complex systems is a fruitful exercise in itself, driving constructive debate, new questions, and lessons learned for the primary stakeholders involved.

With this in mind, I seek to outline some building blocks and establish a simple foundation for enterprise architectures. My hope is that by initiating this exercise, it may provide some conceptual clarity to non-technical folks and demonstrate a framework through which other systems can be defined and explored.

The Building Blocks of Enterprise Architectures

In general, an enterprise represents people, information, and technology joined by common needs, objectives, and/or behaviors. An enterprise architecture helps define the structure of the enterprise to enable the people, information, and technology to interact in an efficient, effective, relevant, and sustainable manner.

  • People – Represents individuals or the various organizational constructs that contain individuals, such as a program, agency, domain, or community of interest.
  • Information – Represents all consumable data, products, and knowledge that is collected or created by other elements of the enterprise.
  • Technology – Represents the infrastructure components, networks, capabilities, systems, and programs that support other elements of the enterprise.

The Foundation for Enterprise Architectures

Now that the puzzle pieces have been broadly defined and we have a simple lexicon to work with, we seek to: (1) outline how these building blocks might fit together to support various operational needs, analytical use cases, and other tasks/functions; and (2) identify the logical connections, interactions, processes, and/or relationships between and amongst the building blocks.

The diagram below begins to define this foundation, logically placing enterprise elements (people, information, technology) to support coordination and comprehension. This would then support the examination of each possible pair of building blocks (e.g. people and information) to define the enterprise architecture and identify critical interdependencies within the system.

Enterprise Architectures: Technology Focus

To this point, establishing definitions and diagrams provides us with a core foundation for understanding end user requirements, identifying security implications, pinpointing system interdependencies, and supporting system analysis efforts. Focusing in on the technological components of our enterprise architecture, we have categorized them into three logical tiers:

  • Top Tier (Front-End) – Represents the technologies that support end-user interactions (data access, analysis, visualization, collaboration, input, personalization, etc) with information/data and other stakeholders.
  • Middle Tier – Represents the utilities, services, and support components that optimize system interactions amongst all people and information.
  • Bottom Tier (Back-End) – Represents the core information architecture, system security, and access / identify management components to support a secure, efficient, and effective operation.

The bottom line is that defining building blocks and outlining foundations is a critical first step to support coordination and comprehension. Sometimes just putting words and diagrams on paper saves valuable design and development hours or at least drives valuable discussion. Particularly in the world of enterprise architectures, this process is critical to align stakeholders up front and to put development efforts in perspective. Whether it’s boxes, lines, definitiosn, or discussions, sometimes a little language goes a long way.

Future Search Requires Human Intervention

The business of organizing information is a tricky one in that it’s a moving target. It’s hard to tell what will be the next hot topic or consumer need, and the contribution of digital information is not necessarily bound by the structure and rules of those needing that information. Second, the mechanisms by which we wish to access and use information are constantly changing. The world in 2050 won’t be PowerPoint presentations, heat maps and csv exports, just as 1950’s world wasn’t all emails, tweets, and search engines. Lastly, with the emergence and growth of social media and networking, information contribution has dramatically increased. Without providing the statistics, it’s well known that more people are online, and more people are hitting a “Submit”, “Post”, “Send”, or “Tweet” button than ever before. As a result, there are more pieces of information, more individual topics, more ways to categorize information, more uses for information, more ways to see information, and more unknowns about that information than ever before.

That being said, it’s important to not be unnerved by this. Collectively, we are smart enough to guide search technology in the right direction, or at least put it in the right place so that its path is optimized for future generations. And collectively, we are smart enough to ensure that the ways we use information will publicly provide guidance to the development of a optimal suite of available tools for effective visualization and communication. That being said, by focusing on the relative near-term, emerging trends can be detected, understood, and leveraged for advancement in the business of organizing information. Gaining an edge on future trends brings tremendous value and exactly that – edge. Among other methods, the detection of such trends requires quantitative analysis mixed with psychology, history, and good ol’ intuition.

In terms of finding information (and more importantly, relevant information), most people think simple search. Or maybe more specifically, they think Boolean search with some available advanced search options. It’s Google, Bing, Wolfram|Alpha, or some other engine – typing in some logical query, occasionally setting some supporting filters, scrolling through the first ten results, and settling on what looks best by some meta data. This certainly works today, and these search engines may be sufficiently wrapping their arms around the influx of new and changing information. But soon technology reaches a limit. The responsibility must shift back to the human. As the informational requirements become more complex and the underlying data become more specialized, relevancy must become more human-driven. We can’t rely completely on technology to provide us with answers.

This notion is two-fold:

  1. Future queries needs more human input. This means “advanced search” needs to become part of “normal search”. Spending 3 seconds to check a box could save 3 minutes in scanning results. You can obviously set defaults for your regular search, but I’d be interested to see stats on the use of type of search vs time spent scanning results. The distance between the two will only grow with the ever-accelerating growth of internet content.
  2. Future content needs more human organization. About.com, Wikipedia.org, and howstuffworks.com are great examples of this. They are sites that show up in search results that organize information. Wired Magazine had a good article last month on About.com as an “answer factory” (in fact, their motto is “Guidance. Not Guesswork” – I love that). These sites organize thought and mimic the human mind looking for an answer to a question, not a query. Websites and blogs need to organize information about information, and as a result we can increase transferable knowledge and decrease search time.

It’s obvious but important to note that people collectively drive relevancy through thought. Trend topics in Twitter, News Feed on Facebook, Google Hot Trends, etc. are driven by fingers on a keyboard, which are driven by synapses in the brain, which are driven by actions and observations, which are driven by circumstance – and maybe even fate. Technology should not drift too far away or we’ll lose access to the very knowledge we create.