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Vanguard vs. Foundational Architects? Both must be business-facing for EA to succeed!

One of the numerous Gartner predictions states that “By 2021, 40% of IT staff will be versatilists, holding multiple roles, most of which will be business-, rather than technology-related.” At a recent Gartner summit, this prediction was used as a stick to encourage business & enterprise architects to jump in feet-first. Not only does the business need them (according to Gartner) but if they don’t do it, they risk losing their jobs entirely to a new generation. Because digital natives have entered the workforce, the “need” for techy people in IT roles has diminished. The rationale says that a broader swath of the workforce have tech skills – at least enough tech skills to replace some architects.

Whether this is true or not is still to be seen. Gartner predictions aren’t necessarily conservative enough to guarantee they will come to pass. In fact, Daryl Plummer indicated that they are only getting it right about 60% of the time (which he said was still too frequent!). The future is tough to predict at the current rate of change. But whether or not architects should be worried about their jobs, it is clear that they need to adapt to the needs of the business. True enterprise architecture is comprehensive, and to create and maintain it requires serious business acumen. In fact, at this same conference, Gartner revealed that the most frequent request that they receive from architects is how to have a political conversation.

In the transition to full “business” outcome driven architecture, many organizations have seen the rise of the vanguard architect. This role plays in opposition to the foundational architect, who strives to preserve what was “good” about the old model. For those familiar with the term bimodal IT, this idea goes hand in hand. Vanguard architects focus on driving and exploiting the disruptive trends, while the foundational architects focus on the core - with little to no disruption from market influences.

It is easy to think that architects whose primary role is to focus on the core wouldn’t need to develop the same business skills as the vanguard architect. And in many cases, it is presented that way. The dichotomy has been used as a way to help “transition” from an old to a new way of working without needing to confront the behavior that caused the obsolescence in the first place. But this approach is doomed to fail. Sustainable (and successful) enterprise architecture requires a business outcome approach from both the foundational and vanguard architects.

Even if the primary role of the foundational architect is to ensure a reliable, low-cost core of technology architecture, the driving factor behind this role is still a business one – namely, stability in support of existing business needs. Most organizations struggle to visualize not only the business outcome statement that is driving the architecture team on a daily basis but more frequent is the inability to communicate down to the individual roles about how their daily work impacts the whole. And for a job that is portrayed as conservator, it is easy to not only forget the communication about business outcomes but to skip it altogether. This approach risks the long-term value of any EA program. If Gartner’s predictions come about – even to a marginal degree – those architects without any iota of business acumen will almost certainly be the first to go.

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