The current metaphors for EA can be useful at a conceptual level to help non EAs understand what all the fuss is about. Most people understand the role of the building architect and the city planner and can make at least a rough association to what enterprise architects do. But many architects take these metaphors much too literally and much too seriously. They try to fashion their practice to align with the metaphor instead of taking the metaphor concept and creating a new way to apply it in their IT or business space.

 The enterprise architect as building architect

I use this metaphor myself when I am talking with non architects. Conceptually, it is a very rich metaphor that almost everyone can identify with. Even though most people have never seen a complete set of blueprints, they have seen enough examples to get the point. Unfortunately, this metaphor breaks down pretty fast.

  • First of all, building architects get paid for creating architecture, not buildings. In most cases the architect gets paid when the blueprints are complete. It doesn’t matter if their blueprints get put on the shelf – they are on to the next project. EAs are accountable (or should be) for implementation too. Enterprise architects whose architectures become shelf-ware are considered failures.
  • Building architects work from requirements. No one says “go architect what I need”. Their clients provide very specific requirements for what they want to be designed. EAs on the other hand generally have to figure out what they are architecting and then sell it to the client.
  • Building architects start with a green field. Unless they are designing a renovation, building architects don’t have to worry about existing structures and legacy architectures. Consequently, they need to create a complete set of blueprints. EAs almost never work in a green field environment (though I would love to some day). Most of what they do at the enterprise level is renovation. They really don’t need a complete set of blueprints.


The enterprise architect as city planner

Though not quite as rich a metaphor as the building architect, city planning is a concept that most people can understand. Again, it breaks down pretty fast.

  • City planners work on long-term visions. City planners work at a glacial pace compared to the typical enterprise architect. In the physical world things change relatively slowly. City planners generally think in decades. Not sure I have ever seen a ten-year EA plan. It would certainly be unusual. Even the most strategic businesses use three to five years as their planning horizon. Most EAs would consider themselves lucky to get that.  
  • City planners build plans, not cities. Just like building architects, city planners aren’t actually accountable for executing the plan. Your city might have a great plan, but if no one is building, who cares?
  • City planners have laws that back up what they say. Needless to say, EAs don’t.


So what would be a better metaphor for EA or do we really need one at all? And metaphor or not, shouldn’t we be defining the practice of EA by what we do, instead of what we named it?