Saturday, January 26, 2013

Solution Architecture - Aligning Solutions with Business Needs

As the Enterprise Architecture & IT Governance adoption is on the rise, we keep hearing a lot about IT - Business alignment. ISACA positions Strategy Alignment as an important knowledge area along with five other knowledge areas. Enterprise Architecture being an important function in architecting or engineering the enterprise itself has a major role to play in appropriately deriving the IT strategy from the business strategy and ensure its execution as intended. Within the overall Enterprise Architecture function, it is the Solution Architecture function that acts as a bridge between Business Architecture and the Technology / Application Architecture. So, the Solution Architecture is a key role in transforming the business needs into IT solutions and it is this function that is key to ensure that the IT solutions are in alignment with the business needs and strategies.

Now, most of the Solution Architects are well aware of this important need at the early stage of solution design and Architecture, things keep going in the wrong way and the business in general are not happy with the solutions delivered. While most of the Solution Architects do well in the initial phase of the solutioning, somewhere down the line things tend to stray away and let gaps creep in resulting in a misaligned solution being delivered. A close examination of the causes of various misaligned projects reveal the causes which are listed below. This list is not exhaustive and is not in any order of priority.

Requirement Analysis

Typically a detailed Business Requirements Specification document is the input for the Solution Architecture function and the solution that the Architects propose largely depends on the veracity of this document. A good knowledge on the business domain of the organization in general and the ability to apply critical review on the requirements would bring out possible gas that if ignored might creep into the solution implementation leading to gaps. Needless to stress here is the non functional requirements, which on most occasions remain undocumented and a largely contributes for the gaps to creep in. Lack of formal processes that call for iterative reviews of the business case and in turn the requirements specifications is cause of concern.

Generally the Solution Architects should be engaged from the initial stages of problem definition, so that they will be in a position to gather the needed details, which might not figure in the requirement specifications.

Expectation Management

Traditionally, the business just throws in the problem they want to solve or the opportunity they want to exploit and probably participate in defining the requirements. Thereafter, they just leave it to the Architects and developers to do whatever and finally deliver the solution. In one of a project for a leading multinational bank, it so happened that when the solution was delivered, they reacted stating that this is not what we wanted and they found that the requirements specification as duly accepted by them was in total mismatch with what was expected. It is good and easier to have this expectation mismatch ironed out early on, before getting deep into implementation. While the expectation mismatch is generally on the non functional needs, like usability, portability, reliability, etc, at times, even the functional requirements also leaves room for misunderstanding by different teams leading to misalignment. The best way to address this area is to involve the business in the periodical reviews by using Agile practices. Even with Agile, this could happen if those representing the business do not have the same understanding of the business needs at large.

Validating the solution design with the business representatives and keeping a watch on the expected design outcome as the implement progresses for possible impacts on the expectation is the best way to address this concern.

Skill Gaps

Solutioning is not a pure science and one should be able to blend the science and art. Getting the best solution depends on the Solution Architects’ ability to visualize the final outcome given the constraints and choice of tools and making sure that this what the business would want. While the skill gaps with other related functions would still be a cause for concern, the deficiencies with Solution Architecture function could mean dear as they play a part early on in the life cycle.

Choice of Tools & Technology

While the choice of tools and technology is not generally within the domain of the Solution Architect, it is important to be knowledgeable of various tools and technology that can be leveraged within the constraints of the IT strategy will go a long way in proposing a best solution. Another concern around this issue is that as the Technical Architects or the development team encounter feasibility issues with a chosen tool or technology, the Solution Architect has to jump in again and align or tweak his solution to overcome such issues without impacting the expected final outcome.

Culture, Communication & Collaboration

While continuous review and monitoring would help bring out exceptions, it is for the organizaiton to nurture a culture amongst the teams so that everyone knows what is the business and IT strategy and the value of the work that they deliver towards IT solutions. The Solution Architecture team should have a thorough understanding of the IT Strategy and ensure that the solutions that they propose are in line with it. It is also important that the teams should collaborate well and work for the common objective of ensuring that the execution of the solution design progress in the expected manner and timely escalation of exceptions for appropriate action.

Roles & Responsibilities

Lack of clear definition of roles and responsibilities would lead to negligence in the deliverables by individuals and teams. As with a project I cited earlier, the business representative who approved the requirements specification did so without being sure of what he is approving. Further reviews and monitoring are very much needed to spot such lapses early on. The culture of the organization should also be such that the teams and team members own the problem and contribute for the solution to the expectation of the business.

Review and Monitoring

Depending on the size and strategic importance of the projects, the program and project management team should keep a watch on any potential impact on the expected outcome and exceptions if any observed are analysed for possible changes to the solution design and implementation and in turn managing the expectations appropriately. This would call for identifying the key goals and outcomes upfront and come up with appropriate metrics to keep track of.

Another area to keep a watch on are the assumptions, constraints and the dependencies which have been identified as part of the project charter. It would be impossible to iron out all ambiguities at the start of the project and as such it is a prevalent practice to start off by making assumptions on such ambiguities and proceed. However efforts should be on to get those assumptions validated and make them unambiguous as the project progresses. Any change in the assumption might trigger redesigning the solution. Same is the case with the various known constraints and dependencies with which the solution is designed and being implemented.

As we could observe all the stakeholders have a role to play in ensuring the alignment with business need. However, the Solution Architecture function sets it off and the other teams carry on from there. The Solution Architects should hold the key, being in close touch with the implementation teams, making themselves available for clarifications, being receptive to emerging issues around the solution design and coming up with needed improvement to the solution designs.

Related Reads:
Solution Architect - Understanding the role

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