The Road to Transformable Enterprise: Reflective Conversations on Writing and More

NOTE: The following post is a conversation between Andrey Milchman and Noah Fang, long-time collaborators and authors, on their new book, The Transformable Enterprise: Enterprise Architecture in a New Key, which “challenges current enterprise architecture practices, which are mostly inspired by engineers seeking freedom from constraints of science, art, and architecture in both structure and style.”

The Road to Transformable Enterprise: Reflective Conversations on Writing and More

By Andre Milchman, Noah Fang

NOAH: Our conversations on enterprise architecture and the transformable enterprise date back to 2015, when I had the honor of working with you in the same company. I think I’m always on the learner side, and I’ve learned so much from you over the years. Even though you and I have been working on and off on the basic writings around those topics for quite a while, I realized, upon finishing this book, that we have never talked about the origin stories of that theoretical universe. So, I really think this is a good chance for us to chat about it.

ANDRE: Absolutely. Collaborating with you and complementing our skills and efforts was a true joy, and I’m so honored to have worked with you.

NOAH: Obviously, my first question is, when and how did the concept of the transformable enterprise come about?

ANDRE: With age and 17-year professional software development experience, I gradually developed a taste for enterprise architecture, which is now my greatest professional passion. During the past 20 years, the software industry has made progress in so many directions, and the best minds have been busy developing and improving so many new technologies and solutions that nobody was available to answer the big-picture questions that mattered to me. In 2017, I self-published Enterprise Architecture Reimagined, which was my first attempt to understand and shape the big-picture enterprise architecture strategy—something that the best industry minds, immersed deep in various technologies, didn’t have a chance to formulate. Now, it’s time to crystalize the concept, back it up with theoretical arguments, find interesting metaphors, and refine the language.

NOAH: What is wrong with that language right now?

ANDRE: The only problem with the language that describes the next-generation enterprise is that it simply doesn’t exist. Dutch architect, writer, and theorist N. John Habraken wrote, “Unlike other symbiotic organic phenomena, the built environment escapes rigorous scrutiny, because humans live as an integral part of it. We engage the built environment not to observe from a distance but to act on it, as an object. In judging it and projecting values onto it, we are not accustomed to simply watching it, to learning how it behaves.” 

The same applies to the built digital environment, with one small difference: it is invisible to us. We know what a city looks like, but we don’t even know what an enterprise looks like. We use the digital environment, but don’t talk about it. As far as I know, Jay Forrester and John Zachman were the only two people concerned, the only two people who formulated metaphors for the current state of affairs. 

It was Jay Forrester who said, “Organizations built by committee, by intuition, and by historical happenstance often work no better than would an airplane built by the same methods.” It was John Zachman who said, “The enterprises of today have never been engineered.” 

We need the language for formulating and solving problems, the language that would help us reimagine the enterprise.

NOAH: Metaphor has been a persistent topic of ours. I vividly remember debating with you about what metaphors work and what don’t. Why is the metaphor for the concept of enterprise is important?

ANDRE: This question was best answered by Gareth Morgan in Images of Organization: The Executive Edition, where he proposed using multiple metaphors to understand organization and management, because 

  1. “In approaching the same situation in different ways, metaphors extend insight and suggest actions that may not have been possible before.” 
  2. “The insights generated by metaphors are not just only theoretical, but also incredibly practical.” 
  3. “Metaphors lead to new metaphors, creating a mosaic of competing and complementary insights.” 

The right metaphor enables us to take advantage of language, knowledge, structures, patterns, breakthrough insights, best practices developed not only in adjacent and related industries, but also in unconventional or unexpected places. I think we were lucky to discover a deep and effective root metaphor for the enterprise—the metaphor that will inspire great enterprise designs.

NOAH: If a metaphor is meant to inspire, to what extent can it prescribe? Or can anything prescribe enterprise design?

ANDRE: Every metaphor comes with its own set of constraints, accordances, entailments, and ideological associations that help designers change their perspective and think differently about a topic. On the other hand, many metaphors come with their own problems and heavyweight conceptual, practical, and emotional baggage. Metaphors do not prescribe; they invite designers to take advantage of the appropriate knowledge they carry along in the form of rules, roles, scripts, and themes, while avoiding mental traps and side effects.

NOAH: Now that we have the perfect metaphor, as the book describes, what is next? If I’m an enterprise architect—obviously a targeted reader—then what is next for me?

ANDRE: The book’s target audience consists of people responsible for organization, architecture, engineering, and operations, which means that we are talking about four main groups of readers. Because the book provides only general principles and general guidance, readers should use the fleet metaphor as a source of inspiration and decide for themselves how to organize, architect, engineer, and operate their enterprise as a fleet.

NOAH: Change of topic (laughing). We constantly fight each other in our co-writing process. You and I are clearly very different types of people when it comes to creative exploration. How do you perceive that difference? 

ANDRE: Comparing us is like comparing two artists: an impressionist whose paintings are mindful, dimensional, and sophisticated, and an abstractionist whose works are straightforward, concise, and incomplete. Nevertheless, we somehow manage to take advantage of our strengths and complement our weaknesses.

NOAH: I read an article saying that we are in the age of “entanglement,” where “[o]ur communication technology allowed us to build enterprises of unimaginable scope and capability.” So, the enterprise of the future will be very different from what we have now. Besides being transformable, what other qualities a future enterprise would need to have?

ANDRE: First, future enterprises must be effective—do the right thing—that is serve the right needs of both customers and employees. Second, they must do it well, which translates into quality of service requirements, such as security, performance, reliability, responsibility, and so on. The third groups of required characteristics are life cycle properties: adaptability, transformability, reconfigurability, flexibility, and so on. Although enterprises of today meet both functional and quality of service requirements, only a few—if any—can quickly adapt to new realities.

NOAH: My impression is that when people think about an enterprise or enterprise architecture, they generally think about rather large organizations. What is your take? 

ANDRE: It depends on the vision, mission, the extent of global reach, and sizes of markets that the enterprise serves. Most companies strive to both expand and optimize by increasing the number of employees and revenue per employee respectively. The latter is an indicator of overall productivity, which usually depends on the technology used.

NOAH: I have seen too many organizations taking digital technology stack as enterprise architecture. Any other misfortunes you have seen in the field?

ANDRE: An interesting approach to enterprise architecture is described in the book Enterprise Architecture As Strategy, wherein the first chapter is entitled To Execute Your Strategy, First Build Your Foundation. A foundation for execution, according to the authors, is “the IT infrastructure and digitized business processes automating a company’s core capabilities.” The sixth chapter is called Build the Foundation One Project at a Time; the eighth chapter, Now—Exploit Your Foundation for Profitable Growth. This highly popular book links Enterprise Architecture with an abused subject—strategy—and takes advantage of an abused metaphor—foundation.

NOAH: What is the problem?

ANDRE: While it is often acknowledged that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, if we could suddenly make all enterprises visible, the difference between what they look like and what they should look like would be way more striking than the difference between a camel and a horse. Why? Because committees know what a horse looks like, whereas enterprise architects do not. They do not think the word enterprise should evoke a clear mental image; imageability of an enterprise is not considered important. The result? Enterprises are built “by intuition and by historical happenstance,” as was noticed by Jay Forrester. 

NOAH: I guess the concept of “enterprise” has lost quite a lot of meaning in recent decades, just like “user experience” does?

ANDRE: The Open Group Enterprise Architecture Framework (TOGAF) views four architecture domains—Business Architecture, Data Architecture, Application Architecture, and Technology Architecture—“as subsets of an overall enterprise architecture, all of which TOGAF is designed to support.” This is exactly where the notion of enterprise is lost. Applying it to the horse/camel situation, this is exactly where both the notion of horse and a chance to build a camel are lost.

NOAH: This book is the second incarnation of The Transformable Enterprise. I remember the first incarnation was a manuscript written in a fashion very similar to your first book. Then, you had this idea of presenting it in a more conversational tone. I was so surprised—and delighted—when you showed me the revamped draft. Why conversations and presentations? Where did that idea come from?

ANDRE: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, a.k.a The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens’s first novel, which remains one of my favorite books of all time, inspired me to write a book in a similar vein. I wanted it to be less formal and more Canadian. Thank you for supporting the idea 🙂

NOAH: Both of us agreed that we wanted to publish this book as fast as possible, even though we have disagreements and regrets about certain topics, opinions, and details. If we were to work on an updated version, what would you change or add?

ANDRE: We did two things in the book. 

First, we brought enterprise design to the extreme, reinforcing the real meaning of the word “emergence.” If we remove ships, there will be no fleet. Likewise, if we remove units, there will be no enterprise. An enterprise emerges as a network of units. Units are tangible; networks are intangible. Why are units networked? To make coordination between them possible. 

Second, the book was written in an unconventional, experimental format, which we hoped would help readers understand the theory and motivation behind it. I think only after receiving readers’ feedback on both theory and format will we be able to decide on what should be changed or added.

NOAH: The speaker characters in the book have interesting names. Could you provide a behind-the-scene look at them?

ANDRE: There is not much behind the scene, because I simply took names from the list of members of Southern Ontario Elite Club of Exotic Sports Historians (SOECESH) who are prohibited to use real names by the club’s statute. So, I simply picked the pseudonyms that I liked and gave them to the event’s speakers.

NOAH: Your first book, Enterprise Architecture Reimagined: A Concise Guide to Constructing an Artificially Intelligent Enterprise (EAR), has got some frank, negative comments about it being abstract and useless. And I remember us arguing about it, as, frankly, I had similar comments. We also argued about it in writing this book. How can this time be different? I have my answer, but I’d love to hear yours.

ANDRE: The book has two negative reviews. Greg D. gave the book 2 out of 5 stars saying, “Thoughtful, very abstract and promotes abstraction but then places everything in the context of manufacturing which sort of blows up the whole abstraction thing, at least as far as the business is concerned.” 

And my intention was exactly that: first, reimagine the architecture, and then show how it can be implemented. 

Then, Richard Foster gave it 1 star arguing, “This book has words, sentences, and diagrams. There is no value for the material beyond that,” which only means that Richard’s expectations were not met. The title of his review—”nonsensense”—likely signifies that the content is even worse than simply nonsense; the reviewer had to invent a new word to express his negative reaction to the book. 

A little bit of history. In 2013, I created a website, method.org, which was my first attempt to introduce a vision of unit-oriented architecture to the world. Although I am a hands-on software architect, not a scientist, I slowly refined the concept and, in 2017, published Enterprise Architecture Reimagined (EAR), which was an attempt to build a more solid foundation for further research. Based on readers’ reviews, you can see that the idea to explicitly and transparently align software architecture with human architecture (an operating model) with the aim to provide business units with ownership and control over their digital assets still seems foreign to most architects. Things haven’t changed much today, because the majority of architects still predominate at the Engineering side of the Architecture-Engineering continuum. Consider the title of the book, Fundamentals of Software Architecture: An Engineering Approach, written by leading industry experts Mark Richards and Neal Ford and published by O’Reilly Media in 2020. Our book could be titled “Basics of Enterprise Architecture: An Architecture Approach“. Yes, we must go back and revisit the basics before progressing further. We have been swimming against the current. 

Nevertheless, I think this book has higher chances for success for two unrelated reasons. First, it is the result of our productive collaboration over several years. Second, it covers the basics of enterprise architecture from four perspectives—science, art, design, and engineering. What do you think?

NOAH: I’m definitely seeing a progressive, maturing stream-of-thought from your first book to this one. What I cannot resist mentioning is that, after your first book but before this one, we had actually been working on a derivative work called 88 Moments of Enlightenment (88MoE), whose creation saw through a few life-changing events such as my leaving the company we both worked for and relocating to Ottawa. We had heated discussions on how to visualize some of the most important ideas in your EAR book and ended up expanding and maturing some of them. I was inspired all the way through. 

So, that brings back my opinion: some books are for thinking, others are for doing. The former belongs to what I often call thinking tools; the latter, doing tools. Perhaps what everyone should ask is not whether a book is abstract or concrete but whether it is a thinking tool or a doing tool. Just like some people are more of visual learners while others find themselves more effective in learning by texts, perhaps being abstract and being concrete are different in style more often than in a book’s utility. 

To me, your first book is abstract indeed, but more importantly, it is a great thinking tool that inspires me to think further, even though that means it probably wouldn’t help me much in figuring out how to do it. This book is a continuation of that vein, but the ideas have become much more developed since your first one. Are you angry at me now?

ANDRE: Certainly not, I highly appreciate our productive collaboration and wish that you co-authored the first one with me. I have two questions for you, too. First, how would you estimate the probability of this book getting 1-star “nonsensense” type of feedback? In my opinion, the probability is rather high, considering we are not singing the same song as the majority of enterprise architects. We see them as wolves in sheep’s clothing—engineers masquerading as architects. Second, how do they see us? Do they even see us?

NOAH: Negative feedback is our friend, and I’m sure we will get it, which is good. Hopefully, our book could inspire future architects, designers, engineers, artists, and scientists to write something that is more concrete. But, for now, I think we need to challenge the foundation of the discipline by remaining at a high level. It is probably irrelevant how they end up seeing us. I do not care, and I bet neither do you.

NOAH: So, now, our dear readers have our book in their hands. What is next? In my case, I will start planning on translating both your and our books into Chinese, and I also want to write something about design. What is next for you?

ANDRE: I think we now have an environment in which the birth of a coordination revolution is inevitable. Although currently, the Internet successfully takes care of global connectivity and communication, coordination is still done implicitly. A company that will build explicit coordination structures on top of connectivity and communication has the best potential to become the next Google. I will collaborate with the New Key Club on that.

NOAH: It has been a pleasure chatting and collaborating with you! I sincerely wish we could write together in the future!

ANDRE: Thank you! I have no doubts that we will.

The Transformable Enterprise: Enterprise Architecture in a New Key is now available on Amazon.

Andrey and Noah have started working on a new book on organizational politics.

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