​How to build grand ICT designs

If your ICT house looks like a derelict farmhouse, with lean-tos, rusting barns and outhouses, you’re not alone.

Last month, I examined the importance of asking “why” in ICT strategy and establishing the “what”, drawing on Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle approach.

Once you have contextualised why you are doing something and conceptualised what you are doing it for, you can now determine “how” to best deliver ICT services and “where” they are going to come from.

ICT groups can overcomplicate discussions about technology service delivery (the how) and sourcing (the where from). Too often, they bring legacies to the table, combined with a fascination for technological intricacies, the war stories of the past and the glittering yet untested promise of future technologies.

Yet most businesses are not interested in what was, what might be and why the ICT function can’t – they’re interested in how their ideas and requirements can be realised.

Talk the same language

So let’s simplify it, use a language that most can relate to and work to engage the organisation in their ICT architecture.

Let’s use real estate architecture as a guide to ICT architecture. In the popular TV show, Grand Designs, people start with schemes and dreams, their “must-haves” and wish lists.

In ICT architecture, your consultations with the organisation around why should guide and inform the key features of your design. Take the time to listen and understand. There’s nothing more futile than designing an environment that no–one wants to utilise.

Managing the inheritance

As we see in Grand Designs, it’s extremely rare to start an architectural project with a cleared block in the ideal setting. The environment that you inherit is likely to have been developed some time ago, adapted to suit ad hoc requirements over time and parts of it may be in dire need of upgrade or replacement.

If your ICT house looks like a derelict farmhouse, with lean-tos, rusting barns and outhouses, you’re not alone. Start with a gap analysis of what you have and what you need, negotiate realistic timeframes and budgets, and design your architecture from there.

If you have inherited a solid design, but need to remodel the infrastructure to meet changing organisational requirements, or better position you in a competitive environment, adapt the design and remodel.

A well-defined ICT architecture is your most powerful tool for delivering your strategic vision, clearly and consistently. There are a range of architectural frameworks, including the Zachman Framework for Enterprise Architectures, The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF), the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA) and Gartner’s Enterprise Architecture and Process Framework.

Any framework can work provided that it is used consistently across the organisation.

A three pillar of ICT variant of the framework for enterprise architectures

Unfortunately, many organisations consider architecture an afterthought. Too often the “how” is established without verifying that it can be integrated into the existing technology strategy. This piecemeal approach creates islands of systems that can compromise productivity, or just end up as shelfware.

Developing a sound ICT architecture requires significant time and investment, a strong commitment to working with your organisation to understand the “why and what”, a thorough and strategic approach to technology and a willingness to negotiate and be firm. This process will lay the groundwork for your business, information, application, technology, and security architecture.

Where from?

This is where the sourcing fits in. It sounds obvious, but many operational areas and ICT functions will start sourcing with a detailed wish list of everything that opens and shuts – in the house analogy, the Miele appliances, heated towel rails, biometric door locks and the sentimental collection of homemade Father’s Day gifts.

True, in developing a sound, enduring architecture, the ICT function must be aware of the business requirements. Retrofitting is invariably costly, time consuming and may be suboptimal. However, assess, scrutinise and declutter.

Once your architecture is established, sourcing can be undertaken in a manner that takes account of the broader environment in which infrastructure and applications must securely interoperate.

The ICT architecture will help guide the decision as to whether a requirement should be met using in-house resources, outsourced or cloud based. Whichever solution is selected, check that it fits comfortably within your architecture as they are now based on the organisational “why and what.”

Work with the organisation to ensure that you engage skilled technicians that have the necessary experience. There is a place for DIY but weak fundamentals can bring the house down and distract from smooth operations for years to come.

Know your strengths and where you can source those strengths if you don’t have them. If you’re going to market, a detailed approach to the market based on a considered and well developed architecture is far more likely to draw out suitable providers and solutions.

Invest in maintenance

Finally, ICT architecture, like housing, requires ongoing maintenance. Invest time in reviewing it regularly. If you’ve designed for functionality rather than fad, you’ll be able to adapt with minor renovations, flowing with the overall design. This is where real savings and efficiencies can be realised.

Like any grand design, there will probably be delays, tense moments over payments and relationships, but, with a clear vision, some passion and ingenuity, your ICT architectural design will be enduring and work well for your organisation and the broader stakeholder community.

Carsten Larsen is partner, ICT strategy at Business Aspect.