Forrester’s recent book, Empowered, describes the type of technology-based innovation by frontline employees that can cause nightmares for enterprise architects. New tools for business innovation are readily available to anyone, ranging from cloud computing and mobile apps to social networks, scripting languages, and mashups. Faced with long IT backlogs and high IT costs, frontline employees are building their own solutions to push business forward.

What worries architects is that (1) solutions built with these new tools — with little or no vetting — are being hooked to enterprise systems and data, opening potentially big risks to reliability and security, and (2) the siloed, quick-hit nature of these solutions will drive up ongoing costs of maintenance and support. Traditionally, architects use enterprise standards as their primary tool to ensure the quality, efficiency, and security of their organization’s technology base. However, when applied in the typical “lockdown” fashion, standards can stifle innovation — often because vetting a new technology takes longer than the perceived window of business opportunity.

To deal with these conflicting pressures, architects must forge a new equation between responsiveness and technology control. The business value of responsiveness, combined with the typically limited size of enterprise architecture teams, means that most organizations cannot wait for architects to vet every possible new technology. Thus, you must find ways to use architecture to navigate the tension between the business value of responsiveness and the business value of a high-quality technology base. The key is to build innovation zones into your architecture; Forrester defines these as:

Boundaries, functions, resources, and structures in an enterprise application architecture that insulate highly protected resources from minimally vetted or unvetted tools and technologies and that provide an environment for rapid innovation and advancement of business capabilities.

With innovation zones, you provide guardrails to ensure the protection of enterprise assets, together with guidelines to steer innovation toward patterns and technologies that will facilitate future melding of the innovation into normal operations.

In a pair of upcoming reports, Forrester will elaborate on the notion of an innovation zone and apply the concepts in an illustrated, phased evolution of a customer service environment. The reports will be available to Forrester clients within a couple of weeks or so.

In what ways does your architecture provide for any type of innovation zone?