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Managing Complexity with Architecture

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There are many different reasons that organizations do architecture, but if we distill them all down to the essentials, architecture is fundamentally about managing complexity and change through structure.

Change comes from several different places at the same time. Technology is always evolving, and hopefully, we’re used to managing this type of change with architecture. Change also comes with new business goals and strategies. Another area of change is the environment our business functions in, including competition, regulations, resources, etc. The 3rd Platform (Mobile, Social, Cloud, Analytics) is currently the big driver in these areas, before that it was Web 2.0, who knows what will be next?

Mike Rosen,

Mike will be presenting the following seminars for IRM UK in London in 2015:

A good architecture will try to anticipate areas of expected change and isolate those areas with a level of indirection, so that a change in one place does not ripple through the entire system. For example, systems that are subject to frequent regulatory changes will isolate the regulations into externalized rules that can be readily modified. Of course, managing change is even more challenging when all three areas of change are happening simultaneously, but separately, and at different speeds.

But change is just one part of the complexity that we have to manage with architecture. I like to think about two different types of complexity. There is the inherent complexity of the business. For example, options trading or logistics are complex business domains and can only be simplified so much. As Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “make things as simple as possible, but not more so”. Inherent complexity also includes the complexity of change. And as I said, a good architecture has to accommodate all of these complexities.

The other type of complexity that we need to address is what I call unnecessary complexity. This is the complexity that we introduce into the system by taking shortcuts, not thinking ahead, having too narrow of a scope, and many of the other sins of business / IT interaction and IT development. In a software system, we can measure the unnecessary complexity in terms of technical debt (although technical debt measures other issues as well). There are of course other reasons for unnecessary complexity such as mergers and acquisitions, but whatever the reasons, we know that if we don’t get a handle on the complexity, our ability to manage change and evolve our systems will grind to a halt.

To answer the question: “How does architecture address these different types of complexity? we need to look at some of the fundamental questions that architecture should answer. Although there are many different perspectives (and sets of questions), one perspective asks the following three questions:

        1. What are the things that should be common in order to achieve the goals of consistency, efficiency and effectiveness?
        2. What are the things that should be different to support competitive differentiation, segmentation, regionalization, etc.?
        3. How do the common things and differentiation things fit together to balance efficiency with flexibility?

There are many things that we want to be common, such as brand, user experience, information, operations, infrastructure, logging, auditing, security, and so on. I like to use a sound bite to describe this by saying “One way to do one thing. One place to get one kind of information “. And while there may be some slight differentiation in these areas, there is generally no business value in having these things different. In other words, standardizing in areas of commonality addresses the unnecessary complexity that makes its way into our systems and enterprises.

There are also many things that we want to be different. Things such as customer segmentation or local regulations are the obvious choices. We may have good reason to differentiate in value streams and processes. For example, we may get competitive advantage by giving different lines of business the ability to customize their interaction with customers in certain process areas. But, the required areas of differentiation represent much of the inherent complexity of the business. Again, my sound bite here is “Every place where something is different represent additional cost and complexity. Every place!”. So, we want to clearly identify the necessary complexity and directly tie it back to business goals and requirements. But we want to go beyond simple identification to conscious justification. In other words, we want to make an informed cost / benefit analysis that trades off the cost of added complexity against the business benefits it is expected to deliver. Architecture provides the framework that allows that tradeoff to be made.

Having identified the things that should be common, and where differentiation provides value, we then define interfaces to formalize how they fit together. This allows us to balance commonality with flexibility in order to minimize unnecessary complexity (through standardization) and to focus differentiation on areas where added complexity is really necessary and justified. And of course, at the same time, allowing for the inevitable changes that affect technology, business and environment. In other words, “Common where possible. Different where valuable”.

Mike Rosen is Chief Scientist at Wilton Consulting Group, which provides expert consulting in Enterprise Architecture, Business Architecture, Service-Oriented Architecture, and IT Strategies. Mr. Rosen is also Founder and VP of the Business Architecture Guild, and Editorial Director for SOA Institute. His current emphasis is on the implementation of Enterprise and Business Architecture and programs. Mr. Rosen is an internationally recognized thought leader, speaker and author of several books including Applied SOA: Architecture and Design Strategies

Mike will be presenting the following seminars for IRM UK in London in 2015:

He will also be presenting the following two half day workshops at our Annual Enterprise Architecture Conference, 15-18 June, London: Architecture for Digital Transformation

This session describes the new issues and technologies associated with the 3rd platform and how they work together to affect a digital transformation for enterprises, and the new security challenges they present. Then, it presents an overall enterprise architecture that ties the new technologies, information, business models, and security together. Participants will gain an understanding of:

  • Brief overview of 3rd platform technologies
  • What is the digital transformation
  • Enterprise Architecture for the 3rd Platform

Enterprise Security Architecture

This workshop will provide an overview of the new threat environment and the new countermeasures. In addition, it will discuss an architectural approach to helping CIOs and security personnel address evolving threats. Participants will gain a greater understanding of:

  • What are the new security threats and vulnerabilities?
  • What are new approaches to understanding and identifying them?
  • Making policies, processes, information assurance, application level security, technology, and analysis solutions work together.
  • What is an Enterprise Security Architecture?

All articles are © 2015 by the authors.The views and opinions expressed by our authors are those of our speaker and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of IRM UK.This article was featured in IRM UK’s Monthly E-newsletter.

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