The Case for Strategic Architecture in Higher Education
Summary: As part of the next phase of digital transformation from the back office to the front office, institutions will need to understand and manage their entire technology architecture much more strategically, while also overseeing consistent and outcomes-driven investment toward improving their students’ digital experience and ecosystem.
Part 2: The Skills of an Enterprise Architect
In the first part of this series, we looked at the role of Enterprise Architecture in Higher Education and demonstrated the value of the Enterprise Architect in an organization. In this part, we’ll explore the skills that one should look for in an Enterprise Architect. They have a wide swath of responsibilities, goals, and authority, depending on the institution’s requirements as well as the basic skills and interests of the person who is filling that role.
Often, I hear people use the term “architect” and my first thought is what type of architect are they talking about: (1) Data, (2) Product, (3) Information, (4) Cloud, (5) Security, (6) Enterprise, or (7) another category altogether. For the purposes of this article, I am focusing on the role of Enterprise Architect.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the Enterprise Architect is not necessarily the most talented developer on a team. The ideal Enterprise Architect is an individual who has a large and varied amount of technical knowledge, almost amounting to a “jack of all trades, master of none”. The Enterprise Architect’s deep understanding of a single technology is less important than staying current on a wide range of available technologies, so that the Enterprise Architect can contribute to strategic, enterprise-wide decisions for an institution’s digital investment.
I’d estimate that the Enterprise Architect will spend at most 25% of their time doing work that you would traditionally think of when you think of a software architect. Most people tend to think of software architects as focused on solving difficult problems and helping devise new technical solutions, often through the use of diagrams. While that thinking may apply to a product architect, it’s not the case with an Enterprise Architect. The Enterprise Architect will spend the most of their time focused on working with business and other stakeholders to identify the business requirements and help determine the right solution from both a business and IT perspective.
Many institutions have distributed budgetary authority, with various stakeholders purchasing software tools they believe fit their business needs, while not involving the IT department in the process. Then they “toss it over the fence” for IT to implement – wishing them: “Good luck, and hurry up!” This doesn’t work. Instead, institutions need to start aligning their business and academic needs with enterprise-wide consideration of the technology architecture, and the impact any new software will have on data, security, ease-of-use, and innovation. The Enterprise Architect is the leader who bridges the gap between business and IT, and helps focus on the right investment while balancing input from multiple perspectives.
All too often institutions will invest in isolated software solutions that don’t provide features IT needs to make that solution successful. For example, there could be a lack of integration with a campus’ student information system (SIS), preventing the campus from fully utilizing its investment. The Enterprise Architect’s role is to work with both business and IT stakeholders in order to find a solution that will not just meet business needs, but also fit into the overall Enterprise Architecture of the institution. Investing in an Enterprise Architect enables the considerations of both the business and IT to be factored into decisions. Each group will have a different set of requirements, sometimes competing directly with each other. The Enterprise Architect will help make sense of both the business and IT requirements and assist with choosing solutions that will satisfy both the business and IT. By doing this, the return on your investment in the solution can be realized more quickly.
Let’s look at the type of skills to seek in an Enterprise Architect. First and foremost, they need to be a good fit for the role technically. This includes ensuring they are knowledgeable about both the technologies your IT shop uses as well as cybersecurity in general. User Experience is another important aspect of this role; the Enterprise Architect should be well versed in focusing on the success of the end user.
The person who fills this role should also have business or domain experience, because success in this role depends upon not only technical prowess but also domain expertise. Ideally, the Enterprise Architect would have Higher Ed experience, but this can be a tough requirement to fill in any industry, so sometimes it’s necessary to look beyond your domain to find the necessary technical expertise. Regardless, ensure that the candidate has worked across business and IT in the past – possession of both business and technical skills is key.
Furthermore, since at least 75% of the time is spent working with people, soft skills are also crucial for the role. The most important of these is communication. The Enterprise Architect must be a master communicator at all levels of the organization. On any given day, this can mean interacting with executives, product managers, directors, developers, end users, and more. The Enterprise Architect needs to be able to tailor their communication to the specific group that they are talking to and be just as effective communicating at every level of the organization. An important skill that is sometimes-overlooked is networking, especially within institution. The Enterprise Architect has a role that is visible across the organization, including end users and IT. Being able to network with other departments, staff, or executives is an absolute must for the Enterprise Architect to succeed, since the role requires working with stakeholders across the entire institution. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but is instead meant to highlight important skills that can be overlooked.
Finally, when is the right time to bring on an Enterprise Architect? This is a function that needs to be addressed at every institution – in order to keep pace with other institutions, as well as with innovation in technology generally. There are many options available depending on an institution’s requirements. It could mean training an existing employee with a bit less experience; filling the gaps with outside consultants; or hiring an Enterprise Architect. However, if an institution is struggling to align its business and IT objectives, or if the function of IT is viewed as merely to “keep the lights on”, it might be worthwhile to consider hiring an experienced Enterprise Architect. After all, the institutions that are going to thrive will be those that learn to align business and IT objectives, to enhance the student experience and to continually innovate.
This is the second in a three-part series. Please return to read the next part, which will dive deeper into the role that the Enterprise Architect will play at an institution.
- Part 1: Digital Transformation and the Role of an Architect
- Part 2: The Skills of an Enterprise Architect
- Part 3: Getting Started with an Enterprise Architect at Your Institution