Picture This

May 17, 2017

“We picture facts to ourselves….A picture is a model of reality….A picture is a fact.”

– Wittgenstein

It is striking that business people have only since the early 2000s acquired a language with which to picture their business to themselves.  It is all the more astounding that business schools still do not teach these first principles; as if they were teaching physics without the notions of force, mass or velocity.  This newly-emerging language is business architecture, and it promises to enable the systematic description and design of a enterprise, just as other forms of architecture have done for microprocessors, software systems and networks.


In architecture proper — the discipline of designing physical structures — the architect uses basic elements like line, surface, color, material, shape, space, texture and value to describe or design a building or a bridge.  These elements have systematic relationships to one another that are often governed by physical properties, such as the tensile, flexural, sheer and compressive strength.  Thus, the architect can declare the possible length of a beam, knowing it will be a function of its shape and material.

Correlatively, in business architecture, the basic elements of description are value, capability, information and organization.  These fundamental and relatively stable ontological units are systematically related to one another such that, when a change occurs in one, its impacts on others can be predicted and described.  When these core concepts of business architecture are augmented with related notions like strategy, policy, initiative, product and stakeholder, it is possible to render a complete, coherent, and quantifiable picture of the business.

Why is this important?  It is important because, for the first time, we are able to model a business as a system and in so doing, engage in the kinds of activities that were limited to physical and symbolic systems.  Just as with software architecture, business architecture enables activities like:

  • Describing, Documenting and Dialoging.  All involved disciplines’ stakeholders, from HR to Marketing to IT, can confidently point to and mean the same thing, literally picturing to themselves a shared reality.  To the degree that inefficiency and even conflict are a consequence of ambiguity and ambivalence, a shared business architecture can provide the common ground necessary for effective communication.
  • Assessing, Diagnosing and Debugging: A well done business architecture enables management to inspect the functioning of a value stream, and to determine where observed failures or obstructions in the delivery of value occur.  This assessment is partly a subjective consensus and can, in part, be quantified by identifying parameters with which to measure specific parts of the system (for example, the output per unit time of a specific capability for producing widgets, or error rates for specific types of data flowing through the system).
  • Augmenting, Re-designing and Predicting.  When a schematic blueprint of the business exists, it is possible to think about how it might be incrementally modified or altogether transformed.  These modifications and transformations typically occur by means of changes to organizational structure, or by the introduction of new technologies representing improvements to or substitutions of business capabilities.  In some cases, an examination of the blueprint will reveal abilities to substantially modify the business model the firm has adopted.  Elsewhere, I argue that business architecture is the way that “digital transformation” — understood as business transformation — can be deliberately enacted.  Finally, a business architecture will often enable a business to fully understand and predict the implications of technological and organizational change; when a business unit is understood as embodying an instance of a capability, it is possible to assess what a change in that capability might portend for the organization and its stakeholders.

Just as the “discovery” of perspective revolutionized art in the 15th Century, the discovery that a business can be represented as a set of basic concepts having systematic interrelationships may at last bring the kind of rationality to business that architecture has brought to so many other areas of endeavor.


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