Eltjo Poort

Architecting in a digital world: Anticipating and accommodating change

Digital transformation success requires anticipating and accommodating change in every area of the organization, including the architecting of IT solutions that run the business and drive digitalization. In fact, evolution is part of the definition of architecture in the ISO/IEC 42010:2011 standard. Change also is a predominant concept in modern software development approaches such as agile and DevOps.

Evolution of architecture is necessary to stay agile

Traditional architecture planning, however, lags behind in emphasizing the importance of evolution and change, particularly in today’s increasingly digital world. Many traditional architecture models are time agnostic.

When evolution and change are not effectively addressed, architecture documents can be perpetually unfinished or already obsolete when issued, leading to development based on inadequate documents and poor planning. This can be a major impediment to any organization seeking to stay ahead of the digital curve and agilely respond to new competitive threats.

The speed at which digital technologies are becoming part of our everyday lives certainly requires the need for constant and quick evolution and anticipation. A case in point is the urgency and growing trend of building cybersecurity into a solution’s design from the outset. What was once managed as a “bolt on” to the architecture after the digital solution was built is required to be “baked in” from the beginning—as countless lessons learned in the past few years have shown us. Another example is evolving digital insight technologies that give organizations the opportunity to capitalize on their wealth of data.

Design a solution’s evolution into its architecture

Integrating evolution into architecture can be done through a risk- and cost-driven architecture approach (RCDA), which results in architecture documentation that not only describes the current situation but also identifies and deals with future events, applying “just enough anticipation.” These events can be the addition of new features to a service, the release of a next-generation product by a competitor, new regulations, or any other occurrence that impacts a current solution’s risk, cost or business value.

Anticipating future events ensures that architecture fulfills its role as a risk management discipline. It also increases the practical value of architecture documentation in cases where the future state turns out to be a moving target. When the digital world keeps changing, documentation that acknowledges change stays more relevant than documentation that doesn’t.

Build in an evolution viewpoint

One approach for adding a time dimension to architecture is to build in an evolution viewpoint that characterizes a system’s evolution needs. Viewpoints are used in architecture to demonstrate to stakeholders how the architecture addresses a particular set of their concerns. An evolution viewpoint shows how the architecture addresses the impact of changes on the solution.

In developing an evolution viewpoint, future events are identified and steps for addressing them are documented. Based on this assessment, the team is in a better position to apply economic reasoning in responding to future events and making the best possible decision (for example, to incur additional costs in changing a release deadline in light of new regulations). In addition, the team is able to more effectively communicate with business stakeholders about future events.

Evolution viewpoints and architecture road mapping are proven means to increase agility in anticipating and accommodating change in solutions development.

Experiences in architecture road mapping

CGI applies the above approach, and it’s proven to help our architects strike the right balance between over anticipation and under anticipation in building architectural constructs (the under-the-hood parts of a solution). Documenting the time dimension of architectures may seem like extra work, but anticipation is part of the job of an architect anyway. And, if architects communicate anticipation as an evolution viewpoint, architecture descriptions will stay valid longer, and they’ll be prepared when stakeholders raise change and planning concerns.

Most industries are experiencing the urgency to digitalize and respond rapidly to evolving customer and consumer expectations. This can’t be done without strong digital solution architects and architecture. Driving agility across the enterprise, including in the architecting of IT solutions, can provide a much needed competitive advantage.

For more information on this time dimension approach to architecture, I invite you to read my article, “Just Enough Anticipation: Architect Your Time Dimension,” in IEEE Software magazine. I also encourage you to read CGI’s white paper, RCDA: Risk- and Cost-Driven Architecture. In addition, feel free to reach out to me directly with any questions you might have.

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