The seamless integration of enterprise systems into digital business environments calls for a resetting of value chains with regard to enterprise architectures, and more specifically supporting assets.
Concerning value chains, the traditional distinction between primary and supporting activities is undermined by the generalization of digital flows, rapid changes in business environments, and the ubiquity of software agents. As for assets, the distinction could even disappear due to the intertwining of tangibles resources with organization, information, and knowledge .
These difficulties could be overcome by bypassing activities and drawing value chains directly between business processes and systems capabilities.
From Activities to Processes
In theory value chains are meant to track down the path of added value across enterprise architectures; in practice their relevancy is contingent on specificity: fine when set along silos, less so if set across business functions. Moreover, value chains tied to static mappings of primary and support activities risk losing their grip when maps are redrawn, which is bound to happen more frequently with digitized business environments.
These shortcomings can be fixed by replacing primary activities by processes and support ones by system capabilities, and redefining value chains accordingly.
From Processes to Functions & Capabilities
Replacing primary and support activities with processes and functions doesn’t remove value chains primary issue, namely their path along orthogonal dimensions.
That’s not to say that business processes cannot be aligned with self-contained value chains, but insofar as large and complex enterprises are concerned, value chains are to be set across business functions. Thus the benefit of resetting the issue at enterprise architecture level.
Borrowing EA description from the Zachman framework, the mapping of processes to capabilities is meant to be carried out through functions, with business processes on one hand, architectures capabilities on the other hand.
If nothing can be assumed about the number of functions or the number of crossed processes, EA primary capabilities can be clearly identified, and functions classified accordingly, e.g: boundaries, control, entities, computation. That classification (non exclusive, as symbolized by the crossed pentagons) coincides with that nature of adjustments induced by changes in business environments:
Diversity and flexibility are to be expected for interfaces to systems’ clients (users, devices, or other systems) and triggering events, as to tally with channels and changes in business and technology environments.
Continuity is critical for the identification and semantics of business objects whose consistency and integrity have to be maintained along time independently of users and processes.
In between, changes in processes control and business logic should be governed by business opportunities independently of channels or platforms.
Processes, primary or otherwise, would be sliced according to the nature of supporting capabilities e.g: standalone (a), real-time (b), client-server (c), orchestration service (d), business rules (e), DB access (f).
Value chains could then be attached to business processes along these functional guidelines.
Tying Value Chains to Processes
Bypassing activities is not without consequences for the meaning of value chains as the original static understanding is replaced by a dynamic one: since value chains are now associated to specific operations, they are better understood as changes than absolute level. That semantic shift reflects the new business environment, with manufacturing and physical flows having been replaced by mixed (SW and HW) engineering and digital flows.
Set in a broader economic perspective, the new value chains could be likened to a marginal version of returns on capital (ROC), i.e the delta of some ratio between value and contributing assets.
Digital business environments may also made value chains easier to assess as changes can be directly traced to requirements at enterprise level, and more accurately marked across systems functionalities:
Logical interfaces (users or systems): business value tied to interactions with people or other systems.
Physical interfaces (devices): business value tied to real-time interactions.
Business logic: business value tied to rules and computations.
Information architecture: business value tied to systems information contents.
Processes architecture: business value tied to processes integration.
Platform configurations: business value tied to resources deployed.
The next step is to frame value chains across enterprise architectures in order to map values to contributing assets.
Assets & Organization
Value chains are arguably of limited use without weighting assets contribution. On that account, a major (if underrated) consequence of digital environments is the increasing weight of intangible assets brought about by the merge of actual and information flows and the rising importance of economic intelligence.
For value chains, that shift presents a double challenge: first because of the intrinsic difficulty of measuring intangibles, then because even formerly tangible assets are losing their homogeneity.
Redefining value chains at enterprise architecture level may help with the assessment of intangibles by bringing all assets, tangible or otherwise, into a common frame, reinstating organization as its nexus:
From the business perspective, that framing restates the primacy of organization for the harnessing of IT benefits.
From the architecture perspective, the centrality of organization appears when assets are ranked according to modality: symbolic (e.g culture), physical (e.g platforms), or a combination of both.
On that basis enterprise organization can be characterized by what it supports (above) and how it is supported (below). Given the generalization of digital environments and business flows, one could then take organization and information systems as proxies for the whole of enterprise architecture and draw value chains accordingly.
Value Chains & Assets
Trendy monikers may differ but information architectures have become a key success factor for enterprises competing in digital environments. Their importance comes from their ability to combine three basic functions:
Mining the continuous flows of relevant and up-to-date data.
Analyzing and transforming data, feeding the outcome to information systems
Putting that information to use in operational and strategic decision-making processes.
A twofold momentum is behind that integration: with regard to feasibility, it can be seen as a collateral benefit of the integration of actual and digital flows; with regard to opportunity, it can give a decisive competitive edge when fittingly carried through. That makes information architecture a reference of choice for intangible assets.
Insofar as enterprise architecture is concerned, value chains can then be threaded through three categories of assets:
All too often choosing a development method is seen as a matter of faith, to be enforced uniformly whatever the problems at hand.
As it happens, this dogmatic approach is not limited to procedural methodologies but also affect some agile factions supposedly immunized against such rigid stances.
A more pragmatic approach should use simple and robust principles to pick and apply methods depending on development problems.
Iterative vs Phased Development
Beyond the variety of methodological dogmas and tools, there are only two basic development patterns, each with its own merits.
Iterative developments are characterized by the same activity (or a group of activities) carried out repetitively by the same organizational unit sharing responsibility, until some exit condition (simple or combined) verified.
Phased developments are characterized by sequencing constraints between differentiated activities that may or may not be carried out by the same organizational units. It must be stressed that phased development models cannot be reduced to fixed-phase processes (e.g waterfall); as a corollary, they can deal with all kinds of dependencies (organizational, functional, technical, …) and be neutral with regard to implementations (procedural or declarative).
A straightforward decision-tree can so be built, with options set by ownership and dependencies:
Shared Ownership: Agile Schemes
A project’s ownership is determined by the organizational entities that are to validate the requirements (stakeholders), and accept the products (users).
Iterative approaches, epitomized by the agile development model, is to be the default option for projects set under the authority of single organizational units, ensuring shared ownership and responsibility by business analysts and software engineers.
Projects set from a business perspective are rooted in business processes, usually through users’ stories or use cases. They are meant to be managed under the shared responsibility of business analysts and software engineers, and carried out independently of changes in architecture capabilities (a,b).
Projects set from a system perspective potentially affect architectures capabilities. They are meant to be managed under the responsibility of systems architects and carried out independently of business applications (d,b,c).
Transparency and traceability between the two perspectives would be significantly enhanced through the use of normalized capabilities, e.g from the Zachman’s framework:
Who: enterprise roles, system users, platform entry points.
What: business objects, symbolic representations, objects implementation.
How: business logic, system applications, software components.
When: processes synchronization, communication architecture, communication mechanisms.
Where: business sites, systems locations, platform resources.
It must be noted that as far as architecture and business driven cycles don’t have to be synchronized (principle of continuous delivery), the agile development model can be applied uniformly; otherwise phased schemes must be introduced.
Cross Dependencies: Phased Schemes
Cross dependencies mean that, at some point during project life-cycle, decision-making may involve organizational entities from outside the team. Two mechanisms have traditionally been used to cope with the coordination across projects:
Fixed phases processes (e.g Analysis/Design/Implementation) have shown serious shortcomings, as illustrated by notorious waterfall.
Milestones improve on fixed schemes by using check-points on development flows instead of predefined activities. Yet, their benefits remain limited if development flows are still defined with regard to the same top-down and one-fits-all activities.
Model based systems engineering (MBSE) offers a way out of the dilemma by defining flows directly from artifacts. Taking OMG’s model driven architecture (MDA) as example:
Computation Independent Models (CIMs) describe business objects and activities independently of supporting systems.
Platform Independent Models (PIMs) describe systems functionalities independently of platforms technologies.
Platform Specific Models (PSMs) describe systems components as implemented by specific technologies.
Projects can then be easily profiled with regard to footprints, dependencies, and iteration patterns (domain, service, platform, or architecture, …).
That understanding puts the light on the complementarity of agile and phased solutions, often known as scaled agile.
Humans often expect concepts to come with innate if vague meanings before being compelled to withstand endless and futile controversies around definitions. Going the other way would be a better option: start with differences, weed out irrelevant ones, and use remaining ones to advance.
Concerning enterprise, it would start with the difference between business and architecture, and proceed with the wholeness of data, information, and knowledge.
Business Architecture is an Oxymoron
Business being about time and competition, success is not to be found in recipes but would depend on particularities with regard to objectives, use of resources, and timing. These drives are clearly at odds with architectures rationales for shared, persistent, and efficient structures and mechanisms. As a matter of fact, dealing with the conflicting nature of business and architecture concerns can be seen as a key success factor for enterprise architects, with information standing at the nexus.
Data as Resource, Information as Asset, Knowledge as Service
Paradoxically, the need of a seamless integration of data, information, and knowledge means that the distinction between them can no longer be overlooked.
Data is captured through continuous and heterogeneous flows from a wide range of sources.
Information is built by adding identity, structure, and semantics to data. Given its shared and persistent nature it is best understood as asset.
Knowledge is information put to use through decision-making. As such it is best understood as a service.
Ensuring the distinction as well as the integration must be a primary concern of enterprise architects.
Sustainable Success Depends on a Balancing Act
Success in business is an unfolding affair, on one hand challenged by circumstances and competition, on the other hand to be consolidated by experience and lessons learnt. Meeting challenges while warding off growing complexity will depend on business agility and the versatility and plasticity of organizations and systems. That should be the primary objective of enterprise architects.
European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to come into effect this month, is a seminal and momentous milestone for data privacy .
Yet, as reported by Reuters correspondents, European enterprises and regulators are not ready; more worryingly, few (except consultants) are confident about GDPR direction.
Misgivings and uncertainties should come as no surprise considering GDPR’s two innate challenges:
Regulating privacy rights represents a very ambitious leap into a digital space now at the core of corporate business strategies.
Compliance will not be put under a single authority but be overseen by an assortment of national and regional authorities across the European Union.
On that account, ontologies appear as the best (if not the only) conceptual approach able to bring contexts (EU nations), concerns (business vs privacy), and enterprises (organization and systems) into a shared framework.
Compared to domain specific regulations, GDPR is a governance-oriented regulation set across business concerns and enterprise organization; but unlike similarly oriented ones like accounting, GDPR is aiming at the nexus of business competition, namely the processing of data into information and knowledge. With such a strategic stake, compliance is bound to become a game-changer cutting across business intelligence, production systems, and decision-making. Hence the need for an integrated, comprehensive, and consistent approach to the different dimensions involved:
Concepts upholding businesses, organizations, and regulations.
Documentation with regard to contexts and statutory basis.
Regulatory options and compliance assessments
Enterprise systems architecture and operations
Moreover, as for most projects affecting enterprise architectures, carrying through GDPR compliance is to involve continuous, deep, and wide ranging changes that will have to be brought off without affecting overall enterprise performances.
Ontologies arguably provide a conclusive solution to the problem, if only because there is no other way to bring code, models, documents, and concepts under a single roof. That could be achieved by using ontologies profiles to frame GDPR categories along enterprise architectures models and components.
Compliance implementation could then be carried out iteratively across four perspectives:
Personal data and managed information
Lawfulness of activities
Time and Events
Actors and organization.
Data & Information
To begin with, GDPR defines ‘personal data’ as “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’)”. Insofar as logic is concerned that definition implies an equivalence between ‘data’ and ‘information’, an assumption clearly challenged by the onslaught of big data: if proofs were needed, the Cambridge Analytica episode demonstrates how easy raw data can become a personal affair. Hence the need to keep an ontological level of indirection between regulatory intents and the actual semantics of data as managed by information systems.
Once lexical ambiguities set apart, the question is not so much about the data bases of well identified records than about the flows of data continuously processed: if identities and ownership are usually set upfront by business processes, attributions may have to be credited to enterprises know-how if and when carried out through data analytics.
Given that the distinctions are neither uniform, exclusive or final, ontologies will be needed to keep tabs on moves and motives. OWL 2 constructs (cf annex) could also help, first to map GDPR categories to relevant information managed by systems, second to sort out natural data from nurtured knowledge.
Activities & Purposes
Given footprints of personal data, the objective is to ensure the transparency and traceability of the processing activities subject to compliance.
Setting apart (see below for events) specific add-ons for notification and personal accesses, charting compliance footprints is to be a complex endeavor: as there is no reason to assume some innate alignment of intended (regulation) and actual (enterprise) definitions, deciding where and when compliance should apply potentially calls for a review of all processing activities.
After taking into account the nature of activities, their lawfulness is to be determined by contexts (‘purpose limitation’ and ‘data minimization’) and time-frames (‘accuracy’ and ‘storage limitation’). And since lawfulness is meant to be transitive, a comprehensive map of the GDPR footprint is to rely on the logical traceability and transparency of the whole information systems, independently of GDPR.
That is arguably a challenging long-term endeavor, all the more so given that some kind of Chinese Wall has to be maintained around enterprise strategies, know-how, and operations. It ensues that an ontological level of indirection is again necessary between regulatory intents and effective processing activities.
Along that reasoning compliance categories, defined on their own, are first mapped to categories of functionalities (e.g authorization) or models (e.g use cases).
Then, actual activities (e.g “rateCustomerCredit”) can be progressively brought into the compliance fold, either with direct associations with regulations or indirectly through associated models (e.g “ucRateCustomerCredit” use case).
The compliance backbone can be fleshed out using OWL 2 mechanisms (see annex) in order to:
Clarify the logical or functional dependencies between processing activities subject to compliance.
Qualify their lawfulness.
Draw equivalence, logical, or functional links between compliance alternatives.
That is to deal with the functional compliance of processing activities; but the most far-reaching impact of the regulation may come from the way time and events are taken into account.
Time & Events
As noted above, time is what makes the difference between data and information, and setting rules for notification makes that difference lawful. Moreover, by adding time constraints to the notifications of changes in personal data, regulators put systems’ internal events on the same standing as external ones. That apparently incidental departure echoes the immersion of systems into digitized business environments, making all time-scales equal whatever their nature. Such flattening is to induce crucial consequences for enterprise architectures.
That shift together with the regulatory intent are best taken into account by modeling events as changes in expectations, physical objects, processes execution, and symbolic objects, with personal data change belonging to the latter.
Putting apart events specific to GDPR (e.g data breaches), compliance with regard to accuracy and storage limitation regulations will require that all events affecting personal data:
Are set in time-frames, possibly overlapping.
Have notification constraints properly documented.
Have likelihood and costs of potential risks assessed.
As with data and activities, OWL 2 constructs are to be used to qualify compliance requirements.
Actors & Organization
GDPR introduces two specific categories of actors (aka roles): one (data subject) for natural persons, and one for actors set by organizations, either specifically for GDPR assignment, or by delegation to already defined actors.
OWL 2 can then be used to detail how regulatory roles can be delegated to existing ones, enabling a smooth transition and a dynamic adjustment of enterprise organization with regulatory compliance.
It must be stressed that the semantic distinction between identified agents (e.g natural persons) and the roles (aka UML actors) they play in processes is of particular importance for GDPR compliance because who (or even what) is behind an actor interacting with a system is to remain unknown to the system until the actor can be authentically identified. If that ontological lapse is overlooked there is no way to define and deal with security, confidentiality or privacy regulations.
The use of ontologies brings clear benefits for regulators, enterprise governance, and systems architects.
Without shared conceptual guidelines chances are for the European regulatory orchestra to get lost in squabbles about minutiae before sliding into cacophony.
With regard to governance, bringing systems and regulations into a common conceptual framework is to enable clear and consistent compliance strategies and policies, as well as smooth learning curves.
With regard to architects, ontology-based compliance is to bring cross benefits and externalities, e.g from improved traceability and transparency of systems and applications.
Annex A: Mapping Regulations to Models (sample)
To begin with, OWL 2 can be used to map GDPR categories to relevant resources as managed by information systems:
Equivalence: GDPR and enterprise definitions coincide.
Logical intersection, union, complement: GDPR categories defined by, respectively, a cross, merge, or difference of enterprise definitions.
Qualified association between GDPR and enterprise categories.
Assuming the categories properly identified, the language can then be employed to define the sets of regulated instances:
Logical property restrictions, using existential and universal quantification.
Functional property restrictions, using joints on attributes values.
Other constructs, e.g cardinality or enumerations, could also be used for specific regulatory constraints.
Finally, some OWL 2 built-in mechanisms can significantly improve the assessment of alternative compliance policies by expounding regulations with regard to:
Equivalence, overlap, or complementarity.
Symmetry or asymmetry.
Annex B: Mapping Regulations to Capabilities
GDPR can be mapped to systems capabilities using well established Zachman’s taxonomy set by crossing architectures functionalities (Who,What,How, Where, When) and layers (business and organization), systems (logical structures and functionalities), and platforms (technologies).
These layers can be extended as to apply uniformly across external ontologies, from well-defined (e.g regulations) to fuzzy (e.g business prospects or new technologies) ones, e.g:
Such mapping is to significantly enhance the transparency of regulatory policies.
Given the digitization of enterprises environments, engineering processes have to be entwined with business ones while kept in sync with enterprise architectures. That calls for new threads of collaboration taking into account the integration of business and engineering processes as well as the extension to business environments.
Whereas models are meant to support communication, traditional approaches are already straining when used beyond software generation, that is collaboration between humans and CASE tools. Ontologies, which can be seen as a higher form of models, could enable a qualitative leap for systems collaborative engineering at enterprise level.
Systems Engineering: Contexts & Concerns
To begin with contents, collaborations should be defined along three axes:
Requirements: business objectives, enterprise organization, and processes, with regard to systems functionalities.
Feasibility: business requirements with regard to architectures capabilities.
Architectures: supporting functionalities with regard to architecture capabilities.
Since these axes are usually governed by different organizational structures and set along different time-frames, collaborations must be supported by documentation, especially models.
In order to support collaborations across organizational units and time-frames, models have to bring together perspectives which are by nature orthogonal:
Contexts, concerns, and languages: business vs engineering.
Time-frames and life-cycle: business opportunities vs architecture stability.
That could be achieved if engineering models could be harnessed to enterprise ones for contexts and concerns. That is to be achieved through the integration of processes.
As already noted, the integration of business and engineering processes is becoming a key success factor.
For that purpose collaborations would have to take into account the different time-frames governing changes in business processes (driven by business value) and engineering ones (governed by assets life-cycles):
Business requirements engineering is synchronic: changes must be kept in line with architectures capabilities (full line).
Software engineering is diachronic: developments can be carried out along their own time-frame (dashed line).
Application-driven projects usually focus on users’ value and just-in-time delivery; that can be best achieved with personal collaboration within teams. Architecture-driven projects usually affect assets and non-functional features and therefore collaboration between organizational units.
Collaboration: Direct or Mediated
Collaboration can be achieved directly or through some mediation, the former being a default option for applications, the latter a necessary one for architectures.
Both can be defined according to basic cognitive and organizational mechanisms and supported by a mix of physical and virtual spaces to be dynamically redefined depending on activities, projects, locations, and organisation.
Direct collaborations are carried out between individuals with or without documentation:
Immediate and personal: direct collaboration between 5 to 15 participants with shared objectives and responsibilities. That would correspond to agile project teams (a).
Delayed and personal: direct collaboration across teams with shared knowledge but with different objectives and responsibilities. That would tally with social networks circles (c).
Mediated collaborations are carried out between organizational units through unspecified individual members, hence the need of documentation, models or otherwise:
Direct and Code generation from platform or domain specific models (b).
Model transformation across architecture layers and business domains (d)
Depending on scope and mediation, three basic types of collaboration can be defined for applications, architecture, and business intelligence projects.
As it happens, collaboration archetypes can be associated with these profiles.
Agile development model (under various guises) is the option of choice whenever shared ownership and continuous delivery are possible. Application projects can so be carried out autonomously, with collaborations circumscribed to team members and relying on the backlog mechanism.
Projects set across enterprise architectures cannot be carried out without taking into account phasing constraints. While ill-fated Waterfall methods have demonstrated the pitfalls of procedural solutions, phasing constraints can be dealt with a roundabout mechanism combining iterative and declarative schemes.
Engineering vs Business Driven Collaborations
With collaborative engineering upgraded at enterprise level, the main challenge is to iron out frictions between application and architecture projects and ensure the continuity, consistency and effectiveness of enterprise activities. That can be achieved with roundabouts used as a collaboration mechanism between projects, whatever their nature:
Shared models are managed at roundabout level.
Phasing dependencies are set in terms of assertions on shared models.
Depending on constraints projects are carried out directly (1,3) or enter roundabouts (2), with exits conditioned by the availability of models.
Moreover, with engineering embedded in business processes, collaborations must also bring together operational analytics, decision-making, and business intelligence. Here again, shared models are to play a critical role:
Enterprise descriptive and prescriptive models for information maps and objectives
Environment predictive models for data and business understanding.
Whereas both engineering and business driven collaborations depend on sharing information and knowledge, the latter have to deal with open and heterogeneous semantics. As a consequence, collaborations must be supported by shared representations and proficient communication languages.
Ontologies & Representations
Ontologies are best understood as models’ backbones, to be fleshed out or detailed according to context and objectives, e.g:
Thesaurus, with a focus on terms and documents.
Systems modeling, with a focus on integration, e.g Zachman Framework.
Classifications, with a focus on range, e.g Dewey Decimal System.
Meta-models, with a focus on model based engineering, e.g models transformation.
Conceptual models, with a focus on understanding, e.g legislation.
Knowledge management, with a focus on reasoning, e.g semantic web.
As such they can provide the pillars supporting the representation of the whole range of enterprise concerns:
Taking a leaf from Zachman’s matrix, ontologies can also be used to differentiate concerns with regard to architecture layers: enterprise, systems, platforms.
Last but not least, ontologies can be profiled with regard to the nature of external contexts, e.g:
Institutional: Regulatory authority, steady, changes subject to established procedures.
Professional: Agreed upon between parties, steady, changes subject to established procedures.
Corporate: Defined by enterprises, changes subject to internal decision-making.
Social: Defined by usage, volatile, continuous and informal changes.
Personal: Customary, defined by named individuals (e.g research paper).
Ontologies & Communication
If collaborations have to cover engineering as well as business descriptions, communication channels and interfaces will have to combine the homogeneous and well-defined syntax and semantics of the former with the heterogeneous and ambiguous ones of the latter.
With ontologies represented as RDF (Resource Description Framework) graphs, the first step would be to sort out truth-preserving syntax (applied independently of domains) from domain specific semantics.
On that basis it would be possible to separate representation syntax from contents semantics, and to design communication channels and interfaces accordingly.
That would greatly facilitate collaborations across externally defined ontologies as well as their mapping to enterprise architecture models.
To summarize, the benefits of ontological frames for collaborative engineering can be articulated around four points:
A clear-cut distinction between representation semantics and truth-preserving syntax.
A common functional architecture for all users interfaces, humans or otherwise.
Modular functionalities for specific semantics on one hand, generic truth-preserving and cognitive operations on the other hand.
Profiled ontologies according to concerns and contexts.
A critical fifth benefit could be added with regard to business intelligence: combined with deep learning capabilities, ontologies would extend the scope of collaboration to explicit as well as implicit knowledge, the former already framed by languages, the latter still open to interpretation and discovery.
Knowledge graphs, which have become a key component of knowlege management, are best understood as a reincarnation of ontologies.