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Plurality – Or, so what’s an enterprise anyway?

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Talking with a close friend of mine the other day on our usual topic of IT, the universe and everything, he said ‘Did you know, Shell is the world’s largest retailer of Coca-Cola?’ Mentioning this to another friend a couple of days later, he added ‘Did you know, the UK Government’s Department of Work and Pensions is responsible for 14% of the UK economy’s cash flow?’ So, major organisations do lots of different stuff – not exactly a breakthrough moment. But what’s interesting is the language we intuitively use to describe them both in business and IT terms; the organisation, the IT strategy, the enterprise architecture – and the negative consequences this may be having on enterprise complexity and the business ability to change and work in the connected economy. We don’t talk about an enterprise in the plural – even though it clearly is a collection of discrete, interconnected businesses. Yet we usually apply very different business and IT strategy and management techniques within ‘an’ enterprise to those we apply between businesses (B2B). For example, a question often asked is ‘how can we have a unique identifier for all our customers (or citizens)?’ From the perspective of the Enterprise this reduces complexity. But from the perspective of an individual line of business, this can introduce significant business change and increase complexity over the longer term by having to adopt an enterprise information model (singular) that may not work for the specific business. Perhaps a different question to ask would be ‘how can we, in an individual business, understand customer (or citizen) information provided by other businesses to help us deliver our services more effectively?’ Another example is the corporate IT strategy. We of course need corporate governance and most enterprises have a corporate IT strategy to support this. What’s interesting is that the corporate IT strategy often goes way beyond corporate governance and into to heart of the front line business functions – attempting to deliver on the usual themes of standardisation, consolidation and integration across the (singular) enterprise. Again, good from the enterprise perspective but perhaps not so good from the lines of business perspectives. Perhaps we are missing a trick. If we adopted the business operating models and IT principles of B2B in our strategies we might intuitively focus more on the interactions (plural) between businesses (plural) in our enterprise as opposed to focusing on a singular IT end-end view – which looks for standardisation, consolidation and integration across the enterprise. We might for example have a focus not only on corporate information management but also how we could enable information sharing across different types of B2B systems within our enterprise – whatever their specific information management approaches are. From both a business and IT perspective we may create more focus on the services each business provides to or consumes from other businesses - hiding business complexity behind them – and how to help them interact irrespective of what’s on the inside. This might just drive up agility (ability to optimise a business on the inside without affecting the consumer of services), sharing of services (as services are easy to understand and access, so sharing becomes a pull rather than a push), and the capability to collaborate across businesses under different ownership to service a customer need. (There is of course an IT term for the above – Service-Oriented Architecture…) Such outcomes are the very things the singular end-end perspective is attempting to achieve but rarely seems to. Further, this could just be a fractal model. Break ‘an’ Enterprise down into its constituent parts and it’s the interactions that are the root causes of complexity, cost and a reduced capability to drive new value. Break it down again and the same pattern occurs. Yet the more we try to standardise, consolidate and integrate in the singular – the worse it can get for the individual business and the more complexity we can introduce into the singular enterprise as a whole – consider again the ‘unique identifier’ example above. Clearly it’s not a binary perspective – an enterprise is both a singular corporate and a collection of interacting businesses in the plural – it’s all relative to your perspective of course. And a balanced view is required. But perhaps by re-balancing to an emphasis on applying genuine B2B strategies within the enterprise we might just more readily realise some of the new business possibilities presented by Service-Oriented Architecture and the emerging technologies of the semantic web, and (counter-intuitively) reduce some enterprise complexity along the way.

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C. Bate

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