The First Enterprise Architects?

By Sally Bean, Enterprise Architecture specialist

A few months ago the Radio Times published a photo of a group of people gathered around a map table in a Battle of Britain operations room to promote a programme called  Castles in the Sky. This programme was about Robert Watson-Watt’s team and their challenges in developing the radar technology that fed the Battle of Britain control system (also known as the Dowding system) with data. This film attracted some interest because the comedian Eddie Izzard had been picked to play Watson-Watt. But my attention was also drawn to that fine actor Alex Jennings in the part of Henry Tizard, the scientist who played an important role in the overall design of the control system. Others involved were Dowding himself, Patrick Blackett the ‘Father of Operational Research’ and Keith Park who helped to operationalise the system and executed it to great effect.  As far as I’m aware this story has not been turned into a drama, but a good account of it can be found in Checkland and Holwell’s book on Information Systems

As is well known, this information system was the uniquely differentiating factor that enabled the RAF to deny air superiority to the Luftwaffe in 1941 by executing a clearly articulated strategy to target and intercept enemy bombers.  Data was collected from a range of sources, filtered and organised into information, which was then passed down the chain of command.  Decisions could be made at increasing levels of detail about which sectors and squadrons to deploy and how to direct the aircraft towards the enemy.  The system managed to operate in near-real-time using primitive, but well-designed analogue technology to transmit and display information, since computers had not yet been invented.

What has this got to do with modern enterprise architecture? Obviously, it’s a good example of the ability of a new technology to completely transform strategy and operational procedures. But more importantly, it’s also a brilliant demonstration of a point recently made by Ian Bailey in the LinkedIn group  for this conference that “we are an information business”.   It was the way in which RAF Officers and Operational Research scientists collaborated closely to design an Information System to support the proposed strategy and tactics that provided the winning edge to Britain.  The strategic principles underpinning the mission and the aircraft activities to be carried out to achieve it guided the design of the information system elements and data flows. These in turn guided the effective social and scientific design of the roles, communication channels, algorithms and physical artifacts required at different levels to make the best operational decisions and communicate instructions rapidly. This is in contrast to the laundry-lists of user requirements for technology solutions that are often collected today with insufficient opportunities for coordination across different groups.  Also everyone from Dowding downwards was deeply embedded in the design process, rather than handing off the real thinking to consultants, as often tends to happen today.  As Churchill put it, ‘the system had been shaped and refined in constant action’.  As a result, aspects like data quality and cleaning were introduced at an early stage.  Significant effort was also put into the ‘people’ aspects of the system, such as selecting WAAF plotters with the right personality and skills, and gaining the pilots’ trust by encouraging them to visit the control centre and see the system for themselves.

A good set of high-level conceptual models of an enterprise has the potential to clarify strategic intent,   and explore the decisions, data sources and communication channels that are required to execute effectively and coherently.

As it happens, my own experience of enterprise architecture has some features in common with this story.  I was fortunate enough to work for a large airline that had a mature operational research group.  A common mode of working was to take an area of pain or opportunity and put together a multi-disciplinary team with OR and IT expertise and business subject matter experts to explore the issues, facilitated by an architect. We would develop some high-level models of the area and use them to think about business problems, changes and opportunities. The OR people brought strong skills in the dynamic complexities of the operation, rather than the static structures that traditional EA tends to focus on.  We then assessed the current IT and future opportunities and mapped out a coherent portfolio of projects to change things or improve performance. Frequent contact with senior executives was maintained during these studies so that they could inject a strategic perspective and had confidence in our findings.

This was in the days before enterprise architecture frameworks were widely used, and so we were quite keen to adopt the use of the Zachman Framework and TOGAF when they emerged. However, in my experience, existing EA frameworks are not strong enough in the information/decision space to adequately address the problem of designing effective management structures, or managing and exploiting information in support of action in a dynamically complex world.  It is therefore good to see the increasing popularity of systems thinking concepts as part of the EA toolkit and also the emergence of an ‘Enterprise Design’ movement that integrates Purpose and Mission with Architecture and Experience.