Why you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of technology ecosystems
By Jim Hietala, VP Sustainability and Market Development, The Open Group
There are two types of ‘eco’ thinking in play for enterprise technology today. One, of course, relates to the intensifying requirement for businesses to become more sustainable, and brings questions about the nature of the role that technology will have to play on that journey.
At the same time, it has also become common to think about and describe technology in terms of ‘ecosystems’. Platforms build ecosystems around themselves of apps, interfaces, and other additional integrations which create value to the end-user. Physical devices are built with an eye to how they leverage, support, or enhance existing technology ecosystems that users already rely on. Enterprises, meanwhile, orchestrate internal ecosystems of tools and services, storage and computation, access points and reporting dashboards, which all have to work in concert in order to enable almost any modern business process.
The fact that each of these scenarios is described as an ecosystem is at this point unremarkable but does not detract from the value of using the ecosystem metaphor as a lens through which to understand how we interact with the digital systems we rely on.
Like natural ecosystems, technology infrastructure is both robust and delicate in different ways. Once patterns of usage have set in, it can be difficult to persuade users to shift their behaviors, and further tools are likely to fall into line with those patterns, helping the overall system to keep going even in adverse conditions; at the same time, key components going missing can cause total systems failures, and tipping points can be difficult to recover from.
Like natural ecosystems, technology infrastructure is dynamic and evolving. When functioning well, it can react and adapt to the ways that the needs and demands placed on it vary seasonally and year to year, shifting to stay productive and relevant.
And, like natural ecosystems, technology infrastructure is about the relationships and flows between components that make it up as much as it is about the components themselves. Just as there is an ongoing and balanced flow of energy and nutrients amongst organisms and their environment, business technology succeeds in terms of its ability to usefully flow information amongst itself and its users.
All of that means that holistically managing and structuring business technology, and how it interacts with the enterprises that use it, is a specialized skillset quite distinct from more acute and localized tasks like providing IT support or implementing new tools. The discipline of Enterprise Architecture (EA) has evolved over the course of decades to meet precisely that need.
Initially, EA arose in order to better model how information technology, which was then still newly-emerging, can reflect the needs of organizations that use it. Over time, as information has become digital by default, the remit of EA now encompasses a more holistic, strategic business role, informing the big picture of how the people, teams, and technologies that make up a business are structured and connected.
EA is, in short, about establishing good information flow through business ecosystems.
In this, it is a highly flexible discipline: ‘good’, in this context, often means productive and revenue-generating, but it can also mean many other things depending on the organizational context. Defense applications, for instance, may demand things like clarity and privacy, while a customer service-centric business may prioritize the connectedness between different customer data sources.
Looking forward, ‘good’ for all organizations will increasingly become about preserving the natural ecosystems which, in so many ways, our technological infrastructure has evolved to mimic. EA is perfectly positioned to deliver on this requirement by integrating climate-relevant data into businesses’ information systems.
This new focus area for Enterprise Architects will ask them to maximize how robust and resilient flows of emissions data through the enterprise are, and minimize how fragile they are in the face of unanticipated demands or uses. It will ask them to establish dynamic and evolving data flows that can keep up with changing organizational sustainability priorities and regulations. And it will ask them to innovate ways of ensuring that workforces are both in the loop and engaged with that vital data, empowering them to take faster, more effective action on behalf of their businesses.
Making all of this possible is what The Open Group Open Footprint™ Forum intends to do, by establishing common definitions for emissions data, and a common data platform to use and interpret it.
Ultimately, it might not be too poetic to say that technology has borrowed not just huge amounts of resources, but ideas and inspiration from the natural world. Now, Enterprise Architecture is poised to return the favor and drive forward the sustainability agenda in enterprises in a more concerted and consequential way.