The Pendulum Swings (Again) as Emergent Architecture Calls for Decentralized Approach

Loraine Lawson

Unhappy with the traditional enterprise architecture options? Then you might want to investigate Gartner's new recommendation-emergent architecture, aka "light EA" and "middle-out enterprise architecture."

In a widely quoted press release, Bruce Robertson, research vice president at Gartner, explained emergent architecture:

"The first key characteristic of the emergent approach is best summarized as architect the lines, not the boxes,' which means managing the connections between different parts of the business rather than the actual parts of the business themselves. The second key characteristic is that it models all relationships as interactions via some set of interfaces, which can be completely informal and manual-for example, sending handwritten invitations to a party via postal letters -- to highly formal and automated, such as credit-card transactions across the Visa network."

Of course, Gartner didn't invent emergent architecture-it's actually evolved as grass-roots approach, according to ZD Net's Dion Hinchcliffe:

"The first seeds of this change began to be felt with advent of agile development processes a few years ago along with the subsequent rise of software mashups, and the popularity of user-distributable widgets, badges and gadgets. These technology approaches combined with emerging business trends such as tacit interactions and pull-based systems driven from with bottom-up within organizations, particularly when co-existing with social computing and Enterprise 2.0."

Hinchcliffe lists six key aspects of emergent architecture, while Gartner's cites seven key properties. Regardless of which list you read, many of the principles boil down to decentralization. Intelligent Enterprise observed this means giving individual business units more autonomy in determining what devices, suppliers and partners they want to use. The thought is that this would enable innovation.


Enterprise architect and blogger Todd Biske counters there's nothing really new with emergent architecture -- other than the name -- while the Burton Group's Mike Rollings pokes fun at the whole notion, observing that enterprise architecture was never about centralized control, but always about "influencing better decision making with a focus on business outcomes."


Still, it's hard for me to believe there won't be some traditional EAs who will be really upset about this recommendation.


But, then again, doesn't it just acknowledge what's already happening with SaaS and the sundry mobile devices now used by business units? Isn't it just another version of the whole decentralized versus centralized IT discussion we endure every five years?


One thing I will say: At least it gives less credence to how things "should" be and more acknowledgment of the way the modern enterprise actually works. Witness this blurb from the press release notes:

"Gartner said that enterprise architects must be ready to embrace the inversion of control. Where in the past, they controlled all EA decision-making, they must now accept that that business units demand more autonomy. For example, they must understand that employees demand that they can use their personal devices, there is increased integration with partners and suppliers, customers demand access to information using the technology of their choice, and regulators require more information."

"Increased integration" is an interesting point, and I think begs a question: In a decentralized, BYOT (bring your own tech) post-modern enterprise, how will IT and EA manage the increased demands for integration? The answer may be in another emergent architecture property, mentioned both by Gartner and Hinchcliffe: A resource-constrained environment.


"Scarce resources encourages reuse, collaboration, sharing, and innovation in solving problems," writes Hinchcliffe. "Resource excess tends to encourage autonomy and not-invented-here thinking and drives the motivation out of many emergent outcomes."


Hopefully, we'll learn more about the integration angle as more people join the emergent architecture discussion.

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Aug 18, 2009 10:55 AM underwhelmed underwhelmed  says:

Sounds like Gartner is promoting yet another paradigm shift that justifies its own existence.  The alternative view is what the mega-vendors aim to achieve - a single IT infrastructure 'outsourced' to the mega-vendors without the need for expensive in-house IT.  Why develop from within when your favorite mega-vendor will promise to take the all the risk and deliver optimize IT systems?  The anti-mega-vendor crowd will say that this will never work because it hasn't ever worked before.  But IBM, Oracle, SAP, and MSFT are bigger and more successful than ever at the mega-vendor strategy.  So (as Loraine says) Gartner is either simply stating the obvious (eg; IT is difficult and decentralized) or they are recommending a 'strategy' that preserves their role as the arbiter of 'best of breed' and 'magic quadrant' status among IT vendors.  Count me as in the underwhelmed quadrant for this Gartner epiphany...


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