Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What is enterprise?

A large segment of the IT industry focuses on the enterprise: enterprise software, enterprise solutions, enterprise architecture, etc. But what is "enterprise"? According to Wikipedia:
There is no single, widely accepted list of enterprise software characteristics, …
In that case, I’ll take a shot at it ;). However, my list of enterprise traits is not an attempt at a universal definition. Instead, I’m relating my experiences in "Big Enterprise", based on tours in half a dozen fortune 500 companies.
  • Big Enterprise has Big Data: many databases, many database vendor products, many many tables, huge volume, and heterogeneous types of data.
  • Big Enterprise has Messy Data. A huge number of different actors have operated on the data continuously over a decade or more. Under those circumstances, it’s impossible to keep your data perfectly rationalized. Instead, there tend to be a lot of inconsistencies, breaks, gaps, reconciliation failures, and dupcliations in the data. Frequently, it’s not possible to impose clean relational constraints.
  • Big Enterprise has messy data processes. It has accumulated many different processes to originate, deliver, and transform its data. It has connected these processes together using the cement of different programming/scripting languages and vendor tools. It has globalized, outsourced, insourced, off-shored and re-shored. It has built layer upon layer of intertwingled processing logic in a kind of palimpsest.
  • Big Enterprise has incomprehensible data and processes. Realistically, complex software and data is prohibitively expensive to document properly. Creating documentation that accurately and fully describes a complex system, to all levels of detail, in a manner that naive readers would be able to make sense of, is much more difficult than the enterprise pretends. And once you consider the fact that the software and data is constantly evolving, it’s effectively (within normal enterprise IT budgets) impossible. Instead, the knowledge of the system is captured in the brains of the staff. But staff leaves, and so some knowledge about the systems is lost. It can be (and sometimes is) reacquired, but only at a substantial cost and on a as-needed basis.
  • Big enterprise is organizationally rigid and compartmentalized. In the big enterprise, there is a lot of management hierarchy. Also, big enterprise formally separates roles and responsibilities in a way that doesn’t always align with the needs of the IT staff. For instance, most big enterprises will formally split the functions of development (changeing the IT artifacts) from the functions associated with validating that the changes are correct (usually referred to as QA). Often, the QA group does not have the skills necessary to carry out the sophisticated validations that are necessary for a rock solid quality assurance against a very complex system, especially if the system covers a domain that requires specialized business expertise to understand. It’s not uncommon that the development teams are disinclined to work on the QA aspect of the system, since it is not formally part of their job and thus amounts to unpaid work. Project managers are usually well aware of the shortcomings with this arrangement but lack the political or corporate power to overstep the existing managerial boundaries.
  • Big enterprise is a stressful, chaotic, operating environment for the people who are tasked with maintaining the data and the processes that operate on it. The forces of Big Data, Messy Data, messy data processes, incomprehensibility, staff turnover, bureaucracy, and competitive pressures on the corporation conspire to keep the staff under-the-gun.
This environment is going to dictate which tools and processes are most successful. As the project managers, team leads, and architects in the Big Enterprise confront the challenges above, they must select the tools and technologies that will give them the biggest return-on-investment within their planning horizon. A normal planning horizon for a Big Enterprise project manager or team lead is a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Anything beyond that is "strategic" and highly risky (and therefore implausible). A tool or technique that requires substantial operational or cultural change in the enterprise IT environment, rather than adapting to it, is unlikely to succeed. In other words, agile is as agile does.


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