What can practitioners learn from Enterprise Architecture research?

Webinar rewind with Professor Stijn Viaene and Professor Geert Poels

Hanna Buyssens

By Hanna Buyssens

Doctoral Researcher, Digital Transformation

27 October 2022

What is the relevance of the academic discipline of enterprise architecture, and what can practitioners learn from it? These are some questions that were addressed during a webinar organised by the Vlerick Centre for Enterprise Architecture and Digital Design. In the webinar, Stijn Viaene, Professor of Digital Transformation at Vlerick Business School and KU Leuven, invited Geert Poels, Professor of Business Informatics and director of the Business Informatics Research Group at Ghent University, to discuss some of these topics. Professor Poels is dedicating a large part of his research to Enterprise Architecture. Together they discussed what EA research entails and how it has developed over the years. The panel offers some interesting insights into what enterprise architects can learn from academic research and vice versa.

Video still - Webinar Rewind - Enterprise Architecture Geert Poels

What can practitioners learn from EA research?

In this webinar Professor Stijn Viaene (Vlerick) and Professor Geert Poels (Ghent University) discuss the relevance of the academic discipline of enterprise architecture for practitioners.

When practice meets research

The academic field of Enterprise Architecture is rooted in practice, thus creating several opportunities and challenges for researchers within this field. Professor Poels explains: "Interestingly enough, there is not that much academic theory on enterprise architecture; this makes the field controversial. Especially regarding the frameworks, there is a clear lack of academic research. The classic EA textbooks are written by practitioners. On the one hand, it means there is still a lot to investigate in what is being preached and what is being practised. On the other hand, this also means that it is often difficult to be taken seriously by both academics and practitioners. EA research is either regarded as too practical and applied for academic research or dismissed as too theoretical and high level for practitioners."

Enterprise architecture vs enterprise architecture management

Professor Poels also mentions the distinction between research in enterprise architecture (EA) and research in enterprise architecture management (EAM). He elaborates: "Enterprise architecture research mainly comes from Engineering and Computer Science. Due to its focus on business informatics, it revolves around technical artefacts, methods, techniques, and tools, or in short, the instruments the architects use. Consequently, the main emphasis is on the modelling aspects of the field and not necessarily on how you can practically use them within the organisational context. This is where enterprise architecture management research comes in. Research of enterprise architecture management focuses on the analysis and the practice of EA within the organisational context. EAM will look at how EA is applied and investigates the value and benefits it can create within a company." 

According to Professor Poels, the field of EA and EAM is subjected to some significant challenges. The main challenge is measuring the benefits of EA within a company, as EA usually has no direct benefits. He explains: "Architecture facilitates and enables many things, but direct benefits are tough to measure. The benefits are mostly indirect, and they are long-term, which makes it tricky to measure them. Therefore, the main question within EAM research should not be what the benefits of enterprise architecture are, but rather what if you do not have enterprise architecture? What are the opportunity costs?"

Existential crisis and digital transformation

Over the years, both within research and practice, the discipline of enterprise architecture has been subjected to much existential questioning. Professor Poels explains that ever since the emergence of the Zachman Framework in 1987, EA researchers and practitioners have been trying to define and redefine the field. In general, the discipline underwent three distinct phases, each in which the emphasis changed. In the late eighties and early nineties, people mainly tried to figure out the essence of EA; What is it all about? When no well-defined answer emerged, the emphasis moved towards the models, tools and frameworks that could be used in EA. Finally, in the last 10 to 15 years, the focus shifted towards enterprise architecture management.

Professor Poels also adds that those shifts did not mean that the existential questions were answered -on the contrary, people are still struggling to define what EA exactly is and what it can mean for the organisation. However, the context has changed; therefore, the questions within enterprise architecture have shifted as well. According to Professor Poels, one of the most pertinent research questions of EA today is what does EA mean for digital transformation and what the role of the enterprise architect should be? According to him, the role of the EA should be threefold. "Firstly, the enterprise architect should embody an advisory role, in which they help clarify the company's strategic direction. This does not mean they should be the decision maker, but they aid management in making the right decisions. Secondly, they should also guide the company through the DT with road mapping and planning tools. Finally, the enterprise architect should take on a governing role and ensure everything is executed and performed according to plan."

A human-centric approach

As a final note, Professor Poels advises companies to not only rely on the methodologies and frameworks when practising EA as these are not the result of research. Recent studies show that what is preached by these frameworks is often not used by companies at all. So companies should not follow them blindly. He adds that these studies stress the importance of human capabilities rather than frameworks and tools. He concludes by stating: "The main success factor for enterprise architecture is having the right skills and people for the job. The enterprise architect oversees everything, so it is key for them to have a number of years of experience in different domains and positions. They should be resilient but agile, creative yet systematic, without losing sight of the bigger picture. They should install the promise of leading towards innovation and claim executive mandate of innovation rather than just trying to prove ROI. It is not an easy job and requires great skill. I do not believe enterprise architects are there just to reduce complexity because they deal with complex problems. Furthermore, let us not forget that complex problems often require complex solutions."

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Stijn Viaene

Stijn Viaene

Professor of Digital Transformation