What Will it Take for Enterprise Architecture to become a Profession?

One of the primary reasons ZapThink decided to offer a formal credential for our Licensed ZapThink Architect (LZA) course was to address the demand in the marketplace for official, third-party recognition of architects’ knowledge and expertise. And we’re not alone: The Open Group’s TOGAF certification as well as the Enterprise Architecture (EA) certification from CAEAP also serve to meet this need, among others. The industry is on the right track. Clearly, without such vendor-independent certifications, there’s no hope that EA will earn its status as a profession. Unfortunately, however, certification is only the first step.

There are certain characteristics that differentiate formal professions from other careers. Physicians and lawyers must obtain certification, typically from a government-run or government-sponsored certification body. These professions have standards of practice and codes of conduct that Congress or other legislatures (or their global equivalents) pass into law. If a professional violates such practices or codes, they are guilty of malpractice, opening them up to lawsuits and potential loss of license. As a result, such professionals must purchase malpractice insurance to address the resulting liabilities.

In essence, what distinguishes a profession from other careers is the governmental regulation that protects customers from incompetents and charlatans. So, are we calling for governmental regulation of the EA profession? Not so fast.

The problem is that we are nowhere near ready to involve legislation in the EA profession. There would need to be broad agreement among EA practitioners as to what constituted proper, professional EA. Today, however, EAs cannot even agree on what EA is, let alone how best to conduct the practice of EA.

It’s as though we were asking what it would take to become a cardiologist, but nobody in the medical profession had made it past pre-med anatomy. Everybody is still arguing over what to call the various parts of the architecture, while discussions of how best to go about architecture are still quite broad and vague.

ZapThink discussed this problem in our Beginning of the End for Enterprise Architecture Frameworks ZapFlash, where we not only called for moving past EA frameworks, we also called for the industry to move beyond the few EA methodologies that are available, like the Architecture Development Method (ADM) that is part of TOGAF. While a step in the right direction, such methodologies lack sufficient detail and formality to provide the rigor required for professional licensure. In fact, The Open Group is the first to admit that the ADM is necessarily generic, and they call upon architects to extend and customize it for particular purposes.

If the medical professions took this approach, you’d never want to see a physician again. After all, patients would die if medical specialties were “necessarily generic,” and called upon physicians to “extend and customize” the formal methodologies that their profession calls for. Certainly, physicians must have the experience and courage to interpret the rules of their profession in the context of the needs of the patient. But the flexibility we expect from our medical professionals is a far cry from the inherent ambiguity and generality in the ADM or any other EA methodologies on the market.

You might argue that today’s enterprises are too varied and too heterogeneous for any such methodology to provide specific, verifiable guidelines for EA best practice. But that perspective doesn’t hold water either. After all, the human body is arguably more varied and heterogeneous than any large organization. The problem may simply be inadequate motivation. While human life is at stake in the case of the physician, what is at stake in the case of EA? The viability of the enterprise?

Perhaps, but probably not. Indeed, if poor EA clearly correlated to business failure then the marketplace would be louder in its demands for a formal EA profession. But business failure is too high a bar to set. Instead, poor or absent EA typically leads to disorganized organizations struggling under the burdens of bureaucracy, politics, and management inefficiency. Which enterprises have such afflictions? All of them.

It’s as though we’re in the Middle Ages. If you have a headache, head to your barber for some bloodletting. No scientific method, no real idea of how the body actually works, nothing but a bit of impromptu trial and error that gives our poor barber a hint that sometimes bloodletting helps with headaches. Without the underlying science, the formalized experimentation that leads to reasoned conclusions about cause and effect in complex systems, there’s no good reason to believe today’s EAs can achieve any greater level of professionalism than the Medieval barber.

The ZapThink Take

We don’t mean to insult the numerous EAs out there who endeavor to help their organizations deal with the change and complexity that all enterprises face. You’re doing the best you can with the tools you have. It’s not your fault your tools are still too primitive to establish EA as a formal profession. But look on the bright side: at least you don’t have to purchase malpractice insurance!

On the other hand, the challenges facing the EA profession present enormous opportunities, both for enterprises themselves as well as for the software vendors and consultants that are in business to help their enterprise customer base. If any large organization is able to improve upon their formal EA practices to the extent that they actually solve internal bureaucracy, politics, and inefficiency issues, they will be able to rise above their competition and achieve strategic value. Instead, the fact that all large organizations are in the same boat has led to complacency: why bother trying to solve such intractable problems if everybody has the same issues?

From the perspective of the vendors and consultants, there is a substantial prize that will go to the first service provider who can formalize EA best practices and provide the necessary tools for executing on those processes. Today’s EA tool marketplace is still serving the bloodletting barbers. Want to know how to move forward? Drop us a line.