Business Architecture for Executives

What is a Business Architecture and why is it important?  My challenge was to define this in terms that can be understood by a non technical business executive.

An architect is a master builder (from Greek ἀρχι- “chief” and τέκτων “builder, carpenter, mason”).  The architect leads the building of something, and is responsible for it being built correctly.  Architecture then represents the principles of design.  The architecture is the reason something is built a particular way: it is all about the construction of the building, and incorporates principles of engineering as well as principles of aesthetics.

There are a couple of definitions of Business Architecture available, but they tend to be filled with jargon.  I will include them at the bottom, but it is more important to understand the reason for the term.  A business architecture is the conceptual understanding that the business people have on why particular choices were made in the organization.  It is not simply a description of the organization at a high level.

Columns at the Great Mosque in CordobaIt is useful to keep in mind that the reason you would specify a business architecture is to guide future changes to the business.  A blueprint tells you how something is arranged now, but does not guide how to respond to future stresses. Architecture is a proximate answer to the question “why is our business structured this way?”  Knowledge of those choices will help guide the reaction when external pressures change.

Before getting too comfortable with this, I need to recognize that the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes a second meaning of architecture and that is the “complex or carefully designed structure of something” and it applies specifically to systems, and in particular computer based systems.  Information technology experts have been using architecture to simply mean a detailed design of the system.  It is possible that you will run into people who believe that a business architecture is simply a detailed description of the business.   As you will see, the purpose of a business architecture is much more strategic and able to guide decisions. A detailed diagram without any understanding of the reasons for organizing a particular way would not meet the need.  One way or another a business architecture must include rationale for designing the business a particular way.


The term business architecture became important as part of the Federal Enterprise Architecture Framework (FEAF).  This is an information technology (IT) framework to help in designing large IT systems.  The enterprise architecture (EA) has three main parts: business architecture, information architecture, and technology architecture.

Much has been written by IT professionals about business architecture in an attempt to precisely define what goes in that box.  The truth is much simpler: the business architecture part of EA is simply all the business-related requirements which the IT department does not have any choice about.  For example, if the business has offices in 16 countries, then that is a given that can not be changed, and the EA for the systems has to take this into account.  If the business architecture includes automated teller machines accessible to customers, then that is something that must be supported as well.  It was described best by Tom Graves of Tetradian as a descriptor of “anything else not-IT that might affect IT-infrastructure.”

In the industry, you will run into many people with this IT-oriented view of business architecture.  It is a very limited view.  There is a far more important role for a business architecture in the hands of a non-IT leader of an organization.

The Real Role of Business Architecture

As a business executive, the business architecture can play a much more important role in the business if it represents the architecture of the enterprise, and not simply a grab bag of constraints on the design of the IT system.  In the foreword to Whelan & Meaden’s book “Business Architecture: A Practical Guide” John Zachman says:

Business architecture is not a solution, it is a tool.  In the right hands it becomes an asset of strategic value to the organization.

By clarifying the reason that a business is structured a particular way, you also clarify what should be done when the current situation changes.  It may be a fact that a company exists with offices in 6 major cities around the world.  That fact alone does not guide people in determining how to respond to changes.  If the reason for being in those particular locations was known, then when a new city gains a status, or an existing city loses that status, the organization can respond accordingly.

A business architecture is a description of how the parts of the business are interrelated and how they relate to the external world.  A good business architecture will help expose real operational risks that the organization may face.  It also may expose areas that the organization needs to change, or needs more agility in order to respond quickly.  It clarifies whether the capabilities and processes developed by the organization align sufficiently with the actual business goals of the business.


Definition the business architecture, and communicating that to the organization is critically important.  The architecture is a way for organization leaders to communicate their intent for the shape of the organization, without micromanaging all the details of every office.  That is to say, a BA is not a blueprint showing the exact work assignments for the entire organization.  Instead, it is a set of guiding principles which are then translated into practice by the knowledge workers in their various parts of the company.

There has been much attention this year to managing complexity.  Modeling an organization as a machine to produce identical widgets is no longer competitive.  Trying to work against complexity is a losing game, because you will ultimately be out of date.  Instead, consider guidelines that work with complexity:

The purpose of architecture is to support the changing needs of the the business. At the whole-of-enterprise level, a simple strategic plan will never be enough – it needs to cope with a much higher degree of dynamic complexity. And whilst IT-architecture often talks in terms of ‘engineering the enterprise’, a more useful metaphor here is that of the ‘living enterprise’ – purposive, pro-active and self-adaptive to change – Tom Graves

In many ways this is nothing new.  Mission statements are widely recognized as important for setting the course of an organization by giving workers something to coordinate their actions to.  The heart of a business architecture is expressed in the organization’s purpose, mission, vision, values, and goals.  Use these as a starting point to build out the architecture to significantly more detail.  Michael Porter’s Value Chain is a tool to help represent the top level required activities and flows.

A agile enterprise does not invest a tremendous amount in a fixed process. The more you invest, the harder it is to adapt. Logic might then dictate to invest little, but that does not work either. An agile enterprise needs a significant investment, but not in a fixed process. Instead, the investment is spent on capabilities that can be recomposed on the fly as needed. Like a paramedic who does not know exactly what the accident site will be like, but has a toolbox of prepared capabilities that can be brought into play if needed.

Christopher Alexander strove in his book “The Timeless Way of Building” to teach us how physical spaces can leverage architectural principles that allow a space to define itself, like the way that a town forms by itself.  There are certain qualities which if present will bring order out of nothing.  A business architecture should strive for the same principles so that part of the organization can define and adapt themselves as needed to their specific challenges, without threatening the integrity of the whole organization.  These are often referred to as “living organizations” or “viable systems” because they are similar to biological systems or ecosystems in their ability to self organize.  The viable system model (VSM) was a central point of study of Norbert Weiner and Stafford Beer of Cybernetics fame.

Exploration of the viable system model goes far beyond the scope of this blog post.  What is important here is simply to reflect on the role that a business architecture would play in bringing about an organization that is or is not resilient.  In this role, it works far beyond the IT systems, which is why it is critical to not be reduced to seeing it as a part of an Enterprise Architecture for the IT system.  It is equally important to see it as not simply a fixed blueprint, but instead something that allows the company to grow and adapt over time.  One of the founders of a software start-up I used to work for would call it the “DNA of the company“.


Here are definitions of business architecture I have found elsewhere for comparison.

  • Business architecture is: “A blueprint of the enterprise that provides a common understanding of the organization and is used to align strategic objectives and tactical demands.” – OMG Business Architecture Working Group and the Business Architecture Guild.
  • A business architecture is a part of an enterprise architecture related to corporate business, and the documents and diagrams that describe the architectural structure of that business. People who build business architecture are known as business architects. – Wikipedia
  • “Systems have architectures. In the Standard, the architecture of a system is defined as: ‘fundamental concepts or properties of a system in its environment embodied in its elements, relationships, and in the principles of its design and evolution’ ” – ISO-architecture on system architecture (not business architecture).
  • Business architecture (1) provides a way to describe and visualize the components of an organization; (2) enables organizations to be viewed holistically, providing traceability from intent (investment of financial and human capital) to outcome (operational cost reduction, taster time to market, reduced cost-to-market and cost-in-market, customer satisfaction, shareholder satisfaction, and so on); (3) provides a mechanism to balance risk with opportunity; (4) is a collection of assets, methods, processes, directives and resources that combine to realize a purpose, a goal, a vision; (5) is compliementary to other disciplines (such as P3M, business strategy and enterprise architecture). –  Whelan & Meaden, “Business Architecture: A Practical Guide”
  • “the Business Architecture is a blueprint of the enterprise built using architectural disciplines to improve performance” – BA Institute
  • Graphical representation of a business model, showing the networks through which authority, information, and work flows in a firm. It serves as the blueprint of a firm’s business structure, and clarifies how the firm’s activities and policies will affect its defined objectives. – Business

2 thoughts on “Business Architecture for Executives

  1. Great article,
    I cut my management teeth on Stafford Beers viable systems along with Taylorism and Checkland, which seems so long ago.
    I do have to disagree with the great John Zachman that business architecture is a tool and not a solution. I think in retrospect that was the mistake made with Enterprise Architecture in that it was treated as a tool and therefore in so many instances never delivered anything tangible outside of IT.
    Business Architecture depends upon many tools to conduct the analysis and design work but what you are left with should be a Target State Architecture aka Target Operating Model that can transform your business.
    I would welcome you to read my book “Business Architecture Made Easy” or the preview
    Your blogs and posts are quite remarkable – keep up the great work
    Bernard Morris

  2. Pingback: Business Architecture for Executives

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