What is Digital Architecture anyway?

Best way to secure funding for your project is to put the word Digital somewhere into the name of it.

Those were the words I heard from a IT executive pretty much summarising the way IT industry reacts to Digital today. We work in digital transformation projects which would be just called transformation projects a few years ago.

Unsurprisingly companies are seeking for Digital Architects to support these projects, whereas they would be just looking for Technology Architects before digital became the fund-securing-word. Funnily enough, if you look at to required job skills, you can hardly spot any significant difference apart from some key words.  So what makes an architect a Digital Architect and in fact, is there such thing as Digital Architecture?

Short -and vague- answer is, “no… but sort of there is…”

There are a number of known architectures which deal architecture in different layers. Enterprise Architecture deals with architecture from a strategic, big-picture standpoint whereas Information Architecture works specifically in the data domain. Not to mention the architectural styles which keep the IT industry going as the newest is always better than the preceding (E.g. service oriented architecture vs micro-services architecture).  Obviously then there is solution architecture which glues all these together around a particular solution.

Digital architecture, is not really a new type of architecture nor an architectural style – hence the vague short answer. It is more of an architectural discipline applied to solution architecture. Although we tend to see digital somewhat analogous to application of technologies like APIs, big data analytics and such the real essence of digital architecture lies in the way it approaches to problems. Technology definitely being its favourite tool, digital architecture redefines the solution design process and shifts the focus from the problem to experience. Thus, the architect who rolled her sleeves to become a Digital Architect must appreciate this shift and be keen to refresh her thinking about the design methodology.

Digital Architecture redefines the solution design process and shifts the focus from the problem to experience.

Here I would like share what I believe are the key traits of digital architecture design process. You will see that some of these could be considered as common architectural qualities and some might be read as how architecture should be done in digitised organisations.

Collaborative Design

Traditionally solution design awaits delivery of requirements and architects define the solution outlined by the given requirements. This would create an isolated design space where architects can deliver their blueprints relatively in comfort. However it may also disconnect them from the actual landscape. Architects might miss what actually matters for customers (or users) and most importantly what the real opportunity is. It is essential to note that digital deals with the overall experience not just the delivery of a product or a service. Architects may deliver a far better solution by liaising with the people from the field and listening to actual users about their experience. They can drive the solution by facilitating design workshops and using techniques like Design Thinking.

Speed Governance

Digital loves speed. Real digital organisations thrive to create customer delight in the speed of idea. Good organisations achieve high velocity by properly adopting agile principles and devops practices. There are also new operation models such as two-speed IT which aims to attain speed by freeing the digital half of the organisation from the heavy controls and processes. This may seem like a noble cause at first as organisations usually develop such controls and processes organically which then often replace the actual purpose. However it is also known that deregulation tend to create its outlaws. Digital Architects may find themselves surrounded by digital cowboys, both from the business and technology side, who hold the very next release higher than the overall goals and the target state of the organisation.

Governance is even more critical for digital as things can get out of hand easily in the fast pace of delivery.  However traditional governance won’t cut it for digital hence Speed Governance is needed; which is a subject for another blog post.

Continuous Experience

Experience is the keyword for everything digital. Another keyword is omni-channel which emphasises the continuity of the experience across all customer touch points. In fact continuity should occur in various dimensions for lasting good customer experience. Architects should consider the whole customer & service life-cycle and their interactions with the organisation while designing solutions. Will the customers get the same omni-channel experience after purchasing the product or service if something goes wrong? Are there sufficient operational controls to provide a seamless, problem-free experience? Can the solution self heal? Is there intelligence built into the solution to personalise the service? Put in other words, architects should be concerned more about the good customer experience than fulfilling requirements.

Sincere Design

Associated with customer experience, this is perhaps the most critical, distinguishing feature of digital solutions. Digital savvy customers will know what to expect from your services and with more digital competitors about leaving your services for a new provider will be as easy as installing a new mobile app. In a digital market, acquiring and retaining customers is even more challenging and the best way to accomplish those is sincerely putting customers’ interest into the center of all activities. Architects should guide the business and technology stakeholders to deliver a solution which creates the best outcome for the customer. They should advocate customers’ interest in their solution discussions and challenge the norms when necessary.

Know Thy Technology

This may be again considered a common virtue for architects but as digital is considered closely with adoption of new technologies, being hands-on is a differentiating factor for Digital Architects. Digital Architects should be able and willing to play with the technologies they may incorporate into their solutions. Ideally, they should also participate in hackathons, lead spikes and proof of concept activities and implement frameworks. This way they can develop a solid command on the technologies and assess their strengths and weaknesses consciously. They can also better understand the dependencies and what would be required to employ the technology at the enterprise scale.

Needless to say, there are more than these characteristics to digital architecture. I highlighted the ones which I feel essential for delivering digital solutions. Going back to my initial question, do you think there is such thing as Digital Architecture? of What is Digital Architecture for you?

 

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