Recalling the Bottom-Up Enterprise

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Las Vegas -- The conference high season arrived with a bang last week and no less than three semi-concurrent Gartner events - Business Intelligence, Enterprise Architecture and Master Data Management – all happening in Las Vegas.

Those of you who have walked the long stone corridors of the Mandalay Bay Casino would appreciate the convenience of this colocation, but there might have been more to it than that. Among those present, our hard work and hyperproductivity might be making it harder for Gartner to decide where to send attendees.

While the topics on hand in Vegas (BI, EA, MDM) are discrete to us, the setting was convenient for a lot of overlap in talk about governance and business policy over IT influence. Even the EA folks were talking about governance and "Hybrid Thinking" as a new approach to harmonize transformation, innovation and strategy (and a way to pry EA away from IT fixation).

In all, the content was pointed at moving project ownership to business and organizing at a higher level. One session looked at the merging of the CIO and COO. That's something I could cheer for, provided the right person is on hand to fill the job.

I'm used to this kind of high-level thinking and often plug it myself. I belive enterprise vision is slowly improving in some companies and increasingly driven by business. But the irony of events like these is that they are attended by large numbers of siloed managers ready to align to a vision that's supposed to arrive from the top. In the absence of that arrival, conferences leave us with inspirational keynotes that show the impressive transformational jobs done at Whole Foods or W.L. Gore, (the company that makes Gore-Tex products).

Gary Hamel, ranked by the WSJ as "the world's most influential business thinker," gave precisely this keynote at Gartner. We were all nodding our heads, but one problem remained -- the rest of us don't work for Whole Foods or W.L. Gore.

Leadership that can focus a core mission like these companies do is rarely a thing that happens just by design. Most often it's a bit of lucky timing where extraordinary senior talent happened to be on hand at the right time. That's where these keynotes come from.

And despite lofty thinking, businesses cannot elevate their performance in the classroom model of raising everyone up equally from the lowest common denominator. Broad empowerment does not equal talent or opportunity. Most of all, the velocity of business has made true transformation less likely through protracted high-level calculation and planning.

The pendulum always swings back and forth. The smart executive suite I know wants enterprise transformation but is immediately interested in helping good ideas find their way to the surface. They don't want the best of whatever pent-up, post-recession ideas their managers have leaking out of the organization because of numbing enterprise inertia. They become their own internal venture capitalists.

Maybe we can do a better job of meeting in the middle. One of the best sessions at the conferences came from Neal Lohmann of Metastorm, who offered a framework for incorporating cloud computing into enterprise architecture. There was good executive-level education about the cloud in his roadmap, but the beauty of his message had to do with identifying and ranking existing opportunities and placing them in context of what the enterprise already owned and was pursuing.     

I see more enterprising middle managers elevating business over IT in their own way, tackling opportunities with quick, inexpensive projects that leverage cloud infrastructure or SaaS or open source. And while I'm not speaking for Neal, most would agree that enterprise architecture is as relevant when reconstructed from the bottom up as it is top down, especially when there's a low-risk success story at hand.

What's the bigger problem? More siloes of projects and data, or more wasted opportunities while the grand enterprise vision arrives? Architects always plan for to-be states, but by extension, a couple of speakers at the conferences alarmed me by seeming to say we should be governing things that don't even exist yet. That's not going to sound like hopeful change to an opportunistic manager. 

Consultants, analysts, journalists and vendors are fine for shedding light on a vision, but organizations are already loaded with experienced talent that should be listened to and allowed to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.

Meanwhile, the C-suite seems pretty quiet at the moment and it might be because a lot of action is taking place out of sight. We rarely find the CEO at a large enterprise who rose through the ranks of his or her own company anymore.

We now have a new generation of smarter, self-empowered managers. Depending on where you work, you've got to hope we're just as interested in supporting the best of them as we are when doing the planning for all of them.

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