March 26, 2013

Architecture standards: Embedding

This is the fourth posting in a series on architecture standards. In previous postings we discussed the standards terminology and the documentation of architecture standards. In this posting we pick up the thread and dive into the embedding of the standards practice in the organization. As mentioned in the introduction, well defined architecture standards do not live in solitude. The relationship between similar concepts in other parts of the organization, such as corporate strategy, policies, tech standards etc. should exist and maintained. The “art” of embedding is an important topic, because the linkages are essential but could easily lead to a rigid and complex system, inhibiting its effectiveness.

Top-down, bottom-up

In order to be successful with standards, remember that they are there for a reason. Either they emerged as a best practice, or someone in the enterprise decided that it is a good idea to make something a standard. To get started with standards, two general approaches can be followed (we describe the two extremes here, in practice organizations follow a mixed approach): top-down versus bottom-up.

A top-down approach asserts that standards are derived from policies, strategies, roadmaps etc. (abbreviated as ‘corporate regulations' for ease of reference). That is, we define standards to make sure that people who follow standards actually comply with corporate regulations.

It should be noted that these regulations tend to be high-level and need not be SMART: strategies provide a general sense of direction in a particular realm, and policies tend to be defined as directives that are not directly enforceable; they govern a course of action (see e.g. OMG’s Business Motivation Model).

On the other hand a bottom-up approach starts with issues at the (current) operational level of the organization. Upon recognition of those ‘pain points’ in the organization and subsequent support of management to go ahead, best practices are sought or developed to consistently deal with these issues.


Recognizing that standards must be aligned to both regulations and operations is a good point of departure. It should be noted, however, that in most organizations, standards are developed from the point of view of different disciplines / departments. For a successful standards practice, these should be aligned as well as illustrated by the following figure:

When setting up a standards practice along these lines with a good balance between top-down and bottom-up, roles and responsibilities must be defined clearly. This makes sure that projects that actually use / implement standards do not have to deal with conflicting standards. In the 6th posting of this series we will discuss how this can be achieved. However, as is so often the case, it should be noted that the key aspects to success are communication, communication, and communication. A good vehicle for making sure people aligned in their thinking is a monthly meeting of a standards council. We will elaborate on the key roles in an architecture standards practice in part 6 of this series.


The diagram above shows that the alignment of the architecture standards both horizontally and vertically involves a lot of coordination. In fact, in larger organizations each of the red arrows that appear in the diagram needs to be managed separately, because each box is often a different department with different people (and a different history in managing standards or similar concepts). In our practice we have seen that setting up a framework around this alignment needs the right mix of two main ingredients. 

On the one hand side there is a need for a fairly rigid structure, in terms of bi-lateral agreements on the processes. These processes should not be too complex; however, we advise that they should be explicitly documented, e.g. by using a simple process flow. A good way to set this up is using a workshop approach in which the processes are worked out. We recommend doing this in a rather small group, e.g. one person representing one of the groups (a box in the diagram), one architect and one facilitator.  

The other ingredient involves softer skills. The need to align standards throughout the enterprise needs to be socialized with other groups. This needs an indefinite amount of conversation and discussion (and coffee breaks, and lunches), and often some political savviness to navigate your way through the corporate waters. Practical tips for enhancing visibility of a standards alignment effort include sending out newsletters, organize lunch sessions, and putting up posters at some strategic spots in the offices.
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