U.S. Government: A Model for a Software Architecture Group

constitution that defines a core set of principles. Three separate but equal branches of government. An executive branch which sets direction. A legislative branch which creates laws through a rigorous process. A judicial system to enforce these laws. This all sounds familiar when discussing the constitutional government of the United States. Does this really apply to an effective architecture organization?

Remarkably, the answer is yes.

Architecture principles are the equivalent of the constitution. A Chief Technology Officer in the executive branch steers the technology ship. Enterprise, domain, and solution architects comprise the legislative branch which codifies a set of standards, reference architectures, blueprints, and roadmaps and leverages them on projects. An architecture review board serves as the judicial branch and ensures projects adhere to declared standards. The architecture organization is commissioned to do this as a service to the corporation and as a steward of its technology assets.

In this article, we’ll review elements of our constitutional government and illustrate how they can be used as a model for an effective architecture organization.

Architecture Organization Mission and Charter

My previous article, Putting Architecture Principles into Practice, argued that architecture principles are needed to explicitly define the fundamental assumptions and rules of conduct required to create and maintain IT capability. These principles, such as the “Reuse, Buy, Build Principle”, provide the IT organization a compass to guide its journey and a framework for decision making.

Just as the Constitution defines the core principles underlying the U.S. government, architecture principles form the constitution of the architecture organization. They charter the architecture organization to uphold and maintain these principles in service to the corporation. They also ensure the architecture organization does not overstep its bounds.

The Three Branches of Architecture

The U.S. Constitution framed a three branch organizational structure to carry out its mission with the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The roles and responsibilities of each branch are separate, but equal.

This structure also proves effective for an architecture organization. The table below introduces how the roles and responsibilities of an architecture organization can be modeled after the three branches of constitutional government.

With this introduction in mind, let’s examine the separate but equal branches of an effective architecture organization in detail.

Executive Branch: Chief Technology Officer

The executive branch of an architecture organization consists of the Chief Technology Officer or CTO. In some organizations, it might be an architecture executive or a chief architect. To use a sports analogy, the CTO is the coach of the architecture team.

The CTO ensures that the technology strategy is in alignment with and in support of the business strategy. This office is ultimately accountable to the business for the technology direction and along with the other two branches serves as steward of the corporation’s IT assets.

The CTO role can be challenging. Leadership is needed to manage the organization through times of technical turbulence or even crisis due to contract negotiations, vendor support issues, wayward projects or operational instability. The CTO will also be unpopular at times. Hard calls must be made and difficult messages given when projects found not in alignment with the technology strategy are being conceived.

The CTO must have a balance of power with the architecture practitioners and architecture review board. This ensures that the principles which define the mission of the organization are followed and that the integrity of the architecture is maintained throughout different regimes.

There may be the equivalent of a vice president in the executive office in the form of a chief architect or architecture vice president. Nevertheless, a succession plan is needed to ensure continuity of this important office.

There are a few areas where the executive branch of an architecture organization differs from constitutional government. Leaders are selected rather than elected. This difference is true of the legislative branch as well. Another difference is that while the CTO is the executive accountable for technology direction, there are more senior executives in the corporation which the CTO serves.

Legislative Branch: Architecture Practitioners

The legislative branch of an architecture organization consists of the architecture practitioners. To use a sports analogy, the architecture practitioners are the team. The team consists of enterprise, domain and solution architects who establish the architecture standards, reference architectures, blueprints and roadmaps and leverage them on invest and maintenance projects.

Enterprise architects have a deep understanding of the current state of the automation portfolio. They work closely with business partners to align the future state with the business strategy. Enterprise architecture is a journey and enterprise architects shape the IT investment portfolio to transition from the current to the future state over time. Fewer in number, enterprise architects are akin to the Senate.

Domain architects focus on a particular technology such as security, front end, integration, content management, business process management or business rules. They play a lead role in defining and maturing standards and reference architectures to be used across projects.

Solution architects leverage a set of standards and reference architectures to solve a particular business problem. Where standards and reference architectures are lacking, they work with domain and enterprise architects to define them to meet the business need. Along with domain architects, solution architects are akin to the House of Representatives.

Enterprise architects (senate) as well as domain and solution architects (house) are accountable to create and abide by the declared standards (laws).

Setting Standards

In the constitutional model for an architecture organization, you may be surprised that standards are not declared by the executive branch or CTO. There is a clear separation of powers as this responsibility falls to the legislative branch. In a previous article, Maturity through Standards, I outlined an approach modeled after the W3C process which is suitable for establishing and maturing architecture standards in an organizational context.

Whatever process you choose to use to define and mature standards, it is important that it has integrity because there is often outside influence from vendors, business partners and others who are akin to lobbyists. A thoughtful standards process will ensure that standards are defined which are in the best long term interest of the company and not merely to satisfy parochial interests. The process must also mitigate the risks of introducing new technology through a maturity model to support the standard throughout design, development and production operations.

Judicial Branch: Architecture Review Board

The judicial branch of the architecture organization consists of the architecture review board. Using our sports analogy, the architecture review board serves as the referee. The review board ensures that project architectures are aligned with roadmaps, blueprints and standards.

The review board consists of the chief architect (chief justice) along with appointed enterprise architects and other architecture leaders. This is where there is a difference from our constitutional government because there is a little intermingling of the branches.

All projects are required to document their solution architectures in a consistent manner. This enables the review board to ensure that the project is being built on a sound architecture and so it can assess whether it is leveraging standards, reference architectures and services as expected. It also must gauge alignment with defined blueprints and roadmaps. A previous article, Achieving 20 / 20 Vision through Architecture Viewpoints, provides a model for creating lasting architecture documentation which is also suitable for use by the review board.

Just as there are famous court decisions which set precedent, the architecture review board sets precedent as it makes judgments on project architectures. Projects which are not found in alignment will not have governance approval to proceed. This may cause drama and make the corporate news as would any visible court case. But as stewards of the corporation’s technology assets, pushing back on projects which are not in alignment is the review board’s mission.

Why the Constitutional Model Works

Let’s examine some of the reasons why the constitutional government model works for an architecture organization.

    1. Principles define the mission and charter. The architecture organization exists because of a small set of explicitly defined and adopted architecture principles important to the broader organization. This gives the architecture function a clear mission and charter.

    2. The roles and responsibilities are clearly defined between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The CTO, architecture practitioners and architecture review board are given the separate but equal responsibilities needed to efficiently run an architecture organization with integrity.

    3. The three branches also imply the minimal process needed to set direction, define standards, and judge whether they are being followed. Each branch of the organization is empowered to establish the minimal processes such as architecture governance required to perform its function.

    4. The three branches provide a resilient structure which can survive many regimes and leaders. The architecture function is necessary to the corporation. Although there will be leadership and organizational changes, the constitutional structure will survive over time in stewardship of the principles. As with constitutional government, the organization will even survive through ineffective or corrupt leaders.

Constitutional Model Pitfalls

Let’s examine some of the pitfalls to avoid when modeling your architecture organization after constitutional government.

    1. All powers not delegated to the architecture organization are reserved. The architecture organization must carry out its primary mission and be careful about any additional goals and outcomes it takes accountability for. This ensures that the architecture organization does not overstep its bounds. When it does take additional accountability, it must also have the budget and resources to do so.

    2. Serving in the architecture organization is a privilege, not a right. The CTO, architecture practitioners and architecture review board must understand that it is a privilege to serve the corporation through the architecture function, not a right. Ultimately, the responsibility is about sustaining an ongoing business concern, not about architecture.

    3. Centralize only what is necessary. The U.S. government has federal, state and local levels. Similarly, the architecture organization should drive responsibility down to the local level as much as possible or it will become overly bureaucratic.

What Is Your Model?

Surprisingly, the constitutional government of the United States provides an effective model for an architecture organization. Like the constitution, architecture principles define a clear mission. Separation of powers into the executive, legislative, and judicial branches enable the organization to effectively and efficiently carry out its mission over time.

What is the model for your architecture organization? Does it effectively ensure that the technology strategy aligns with the business strategy? Does it leverage standards consistently? Does it have a push back mechanism for projects which are not in alignment with standards, reference architectures, blueprints and roadmaps? Has its structure and vitality survived through different regimes?

If your answer is no to any of these questions, consider how you might model the roles and responsibilities or your architecture organization after constitutional government as discussed in this article. The rest is up to you!

Recommended Resources

Those interested in learning more about topics touched on in this article including architecture blueprints, standards, reference architecture, principles and architecture viewpoints should consider downloading a copy of my e-book, Enterprise Architecture: The Journey Begins Here. The books are free and only require you to register with Internet.com.
Enterprise Architecture: The Journey Begins Here, Part 1
Enterprise Architecture: The Journey Begins Here, Part 2

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