A business model canvas may help the business side work better with IT

Most IT organizations of any size now have enterprise architecture teams. Yet in the eyes of the business, enterprise architects are viewed by business people much as a plague of locusts is viewed by a farmer a week or two before harvest time.

Unfriendly relations doesn’t begin to cover it.

One of the reasons is that few enterprise architects have been able to engage the business in true enterprise architecture. Rather, they’ve brought discussions about technology issues to the table. (They’ve also slipped repeatedly into what the business calls “process myopia”, both in terms of insisting on how the architecture process will unfold — wanted or not — and in terms of reducing everything to a process and data flow problem.)

When all you have is a hammer, every screw and bolt looks like a nail.

IT professionals in general tend toward trying to reduce everything to processes. That’s a key part of building up use cases, amongst other things. But it’s a lousy way to try and architect an enterprise, especially if your goal is to get to agreement on a future state that allows for long-range evolution of the technology portfolio.

Einstein once pointed out that “we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. That means the tools and methods we used to build the enterprises and portfolios we have can’t be used to design a new one.

Say, a really agile enterprise that flexed and shifted to encompass opportunities. You know, the kind that’s likely to prosper no matter what happens.

Few of us work for one of those now — and economic storms are a’coming. If enterprise architecture is really going to be good for anything, it ought to be in the vanguard of preparing for long-running situations of lashing change.

Enter the notion of the business model canvas, as a tool to get at the enterprise’s future state.

Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation lays out the basic (or “profit first”) canvas. Nine questions animate its nine segments, forcing users of it to think through customers, value propositions, key resources and processes, channels and communication flows, partners, and the cost and revenues moving through the system. It’s a way to both ask the questions about the business that exists — and the business as it could be — that allow for more flexible futures to emerge.

It also fits very nicely into scenario planning, and other tools already in use in businesses to design alternative strategies and conserve efforts already taken.

What’s really effective (if we’re going to architect enterprises, we ought to do it completely) is when you grow Osterwalder’s canvas with another five questions to get at the environmental (resource flows and recycling issues) and social (impact of the enterprise on communities, non-obvious stakeholders, etc.) in what’s called the “strongly sustainable business model canvas.” You can find out more about this by connecting to the Strongly Sustainable Business Models group on LinkedIn.

Simple “profit only” canvas or complicated “triple bottom line” canvas, these tools allow for interactivity with the business to design and architect rapidly and comprehensively. They integrate with strategy discussions and thus have a place in planning. They also avoid the trap of process-centred or data-centred approaches to architecture, in that processes and data are seen (properly) as parts of a bigger whole that emerge as people in the meetings engage from their backgrounds of marketing, production, finance, etc.

Once the business model and its changes are understood, the more detailed (and familiar in an IT context) analyses leading to solutions have their place — but instead of asking them to carry the weight of evoking the future they’re now limited to fleshing out a future that’s already been brought to light. What’s more, the business sees the process of working with the canvas as something normal and natural, not something imposed on them that “reeks of technology”.

Like it or not, business people often fear making decisions when confronted with technology issues. Finding ways to get them making calls in their comfort zone is also part of the job of the architect — even if that means getting the architects out of their familiar routines!

Canvases can be made up as wall-sized laminated posters, but most people simply use whiteboards and post-it notes, or butcher paper and post-it notes. (Again, the low-tech approach helps.) That means that meetings can be held in any convenient gathering place.

In a recent test, an entire new venture (new products, services, customer value propositions, partnerships, etc.) was worked out in two hours by people asked to consider the issue with no preparation other than their own background knowledge. Yes, it needed refinement, more analysis, and fleshing out — but the point is clear: it’s a fast, clean, workable architectural process the business can get behind.

The time is overdue for enterprise architecture to live up to its name. If you’re in architecture, broaden your horizons and start bringing business tools to the table. Modelling canvases are a good starting point.

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