In my previous article, Architecture is a Funny Word, I introduced Esri’s Global Architecture Team. I talked a bit about the work we do (and don’t do) and how we can support you in your efforts to design, build, and implement a GIS that makes a real difference at your organization. You might want to check that blog out first, since it sets up some of the context for this one. However, if you think context is dull and overrated, then by all means carry on, dear reader.
While everyone uses both sides of their brain, it is said that ‘right-brained’ people tend to be creative, imaginative and innovative thinkers. They like to employ creative concepts to understand complex ideas, are often focused more on the ‘big picture’ rather than specific details. ‘Left-brained’ people are said to be detail-oriented, analytical, and logical thinkers. They like to approach problems methodically and with concrete evidence and facts, and know that people don’t trip over mountains, but over molehills.
It seems to me that GIS practitioners are a diverse mix of right and left-brainers. Which makes sense, since GIS is as much about analyzing data and identifying patterns as it is about communicating concepts and ideas with beautiful, compelling visuals. So, I figured it could be valuable (and fun) to try and explain architecture in a way that would appeal to a larger group of thinkers.
The Right Brain
For my right-brained readers, I offer you an architecture analogy: Architecture is often compared to the architecture of the physical world of buildings, bridges, or even city planning. This analogy illustrates some key facets of the discipline- describing ‘what should be’ in terms of design, and how it should be adjusted going forward. However, this analogy only describes some of what architects do, and sometimes the ‘how’ and ‘why’ are more interesting, especially to you right-brainers, than the ‘what’. So why don’t we take a new analogy for a spin?
The fundamental idea of “yin-yang” is that seemingly opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary and interrelated. If you’ve ever sat in a room with technologists and business people trying to solve a problem together, you might see how those 'seemingly opposite forces' could represent business and technology. Technologists often feel separated from the business objectives of their organization, and business people sometimes see technology as a frustrating, separate field from their work. Of course, these two practices are completely interrelated and dependent on each other: the business dictates the use of technology, and technology guides and enables what’s possible for the business to achieve.
One of the key tenets of an architect’s duty is to make this relationship strong and clear by aligning the capabilities of technology to the needs of the business. In other words, we strive to highlight and strengthen the interconnectedness of these sometimes seemingly opposing forces. We do this by starting with a vision everyone can agree on and collectively work toward. Almost as importantly, we also need to make that alignment easier to see and understand, especially for leadership and other key stakeholders. This means communicating creatively, often with visuals, to explain complex ideas. Anyone who has had to act as the bridge between business and technology knows that bridge’s foundation relies more heavily on the art of building relationships than the science of technicalities.
The Left Brain
Alright, left-brained readers, it’s your time to shine. Let’s get serious about the methodical, concrete work architects on the Global Architecture team can do with you. Our work revolves around three key questions:
- Where is your organization today?
- Where do you need to be tomorrow?
- What’s the best path to get there?
Notice how I didn’t say:
- What does your GIS do today?
- What do you want to do with GIS tomorrow?
- Here’s what you need to buy or install to do it
Rather, we take a business-first approach to ensure that your investment in GIS is directly impacting outcomes for your organization and its stakeholders. We start by understanding the business challenges impeding your organization’s goals, and design new or augmented business workflows that resolve those challenges. Then, we identify what technology components, information, data, and skills are needed to enable those workflows. This process draws clear connections between technology solutions and business outcomes for your executive sponsors (or potential executive sponsors).
This work can’t be done in isolation. An architect documents perspectives from both the business and technology side before defining how to meet their needs in an efficient, sustainable and adaptable way. This means that architects speak the languages of both technologists and business managers. One way we do this is with diagrams. Kind of how GIS practitioners communicate with maps.
While technical architects communicate with system diagrams, my team and I communicate with conceptual and logical architecture diagrams. These might take the shape of a matrix illustrating where technology is not being effectively leveraged in your organization, a flow diagram outlining a new or augmented business workflow, or a roadmap that details how to get from where you are now to a place where you can overcome the challenges impeding your goals.
As Esri’s User Conference is just around the corner, I suspect many of you are getting excited to talk about the future for GIS at your organization. The Global Architecture Team is excited to work with you. Come chat with us. If you have any questions or would like to talk about any of these ideas further, email me at email@example.com. You can also reach my team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Nothing is as dangerous in architecture as dealing with separated problems” – Alvar Aalto