Saturday, May 19, 2012

Enabling Better Communications with Physical EA Models

A pretty BMW car.  photo credit: marco_dmoz

Physical Models: Powerful visual cues for enabling better communications

BMW's innovation centre in Munich is designed with deep considerations on how to encourage innovation and collaborations between employees.  One key feature of the building is full scale prototypes of the current cars in development placed in a highly visible central space, so that all the different teams-- engineering, sales, marketing etc--can see the prototypes.  This visual cue brings great value to the company, as various teams are aware of the latest design and progress of the project, and consequently teams are on the same page when having discussions about a particular car model.

Elaborating on concepts underlying this centre, as well as other related principles, the centre's architect Gunter Henn co-authored the book "The Organization and Architecture of Innovation: Managing the Flow of Technology".  Gunter's co-author is MIT professor Thomas Allen, an expert in organization communications.  The result is a book that brings an interesting intersection between communication and physical spaces.

How Physical Models relate to Enterprise Architecture

The "A-Ha" moment for me was when I realized that there is a linkage between this topic of physical spaces design and enterprise architecture.  Often the enterprise architect is trying to do the same thing as what Gunter did in designing BMW's centre--provide a common view of the current situation so that all the stakeholders can be on the same page and have meaningful discussions.  Enterprise Architects create "views" that highlight the most relevant pieces, and represent them in a way that make sense to stakeholders.  For example, a service catalogue shows key services provided by an organization.  In BMW's case, the "view" is embodied in physical objects, and it carries key information like project progress, aesthetic design, choice of materials, colors, etc.

What does this mean for EA?

How then can Enterprise Architecture leverage on principles behind BMW's innovation centre's design?  I don't have a definite answer, but here are some thoughts:
Core values of a company framed on the wall.
photo credit: videography
  1. People are already doing it!  When I thought about examples of physical EA models, I thought of views like an enterprise's core values and strategic objectives.  I then recall seeing various organizations putting these information on banners and big billboards, and display them at prominent places like the lobby.
  2. Help departments communicate their value, by helping them build physical models of their key views so that they can better communicate what they do.  If the organization has regular knowledge sharing sessions, teams can use these physical models as show-and-tell tools.  At other times, display these models at prominent places near to the team's workspace.  Possible views to use are a department's key processes, how they inter-relate and how they support the organization's objectives.
  3. Help projects communicate progress.  Develop physical models for major projects, like in BMW's case, as visual cues of project progress, current design, etc.  Again, here is an opportunity for EA to validate data in the EA repository, and also provide values to project teams.  The challenge though is how can the physical model be regularly updated to reflect project progress?  Some thinking will be needed to work this out.
  4. New way for EA to provide value and to engage.  Provide tools and the needed information (from the EA repository!) to generate the physical models.  This is a good opportunity for the Enterprise Architecture team to engage the rest of the enterprise in validating data in the enterprise architecture repository.  The most straightforward physical models are simply poster print-outs of key views.  The periodic table of visualization methods provides a good list of visualization ideas.  Or how about using cardboard boxes and styrofoam to showcase views like key business processes and technologies?  Another idea is to experiment with 3D printers since they are becoming widely available for under USD2000! 
I will be keen to hear your thoughts, and more so if you have experience with physical EA models.

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