05.05.2014

Jammin’ at Bilot Labs: what enterprise architecture could learn from jazz

My colleague Janne Vihervuori recently blogged about cloud integrations and how a good team performs like a jazz combo.

Jazz may not be the most street creddy thing out there, but after digesting a mind-expanding Pat Metheny gig at the Finlandia Hall last Monday, I couldn’t resist stretching that analogy a bit.

Assume musicians are like vendors, consultants and techies. Assume the music they produce are like solutions running in your landscape. Assume that fulfillment of business value is analogous to the audience’s expectations for fulfilling cultural experiences. What does that give us?

Improvisation on a theme: walking the fine line between standards and custom compositions

You have a business need to fullfil, and an audience to please. What do you do?

You may go the risk-free mainstream way: deploy a shrink-wrapped application or SaaS service and put on your Top 100 hit off Spotify. It’s rather unlikely that you’d happen to solve the specific business need or enable competitive advantage in doing so. And, the audience will drowse off with a yawn, because they’ve heard that same one-format-fits-all music a gazillion times.

Alternatively, you may put on your consultant hat, produce/procure a complex custom application which does the job. It’s like writing a dedicated, intricate composition for a one-off performance, careful not to copy any notes (plagiarism is the antithesis of competitive advantage, right?) Both are inefficient and risky to produce – and the business/audience will still have a hard time digesting the outcome, since it’s all green-field out-of-the-blue, instead of being based on well known components.

Or – you could master the art of improvisation, doing variations on a theme. Most likely, the business need you have to solve is not unique – lot’s of businesses have solved similar ones before. Pick the best suited building blocks from your toolbox, and start improvising around them, to come up with a result which is tailored for perfect fit, competitively unique, fresh to the ear/eye/mind. Risk and effort is hugely reduced; acceptance factor and success rate booming.

Good orchestration is key

You might think that great jazz happens magically “all by itself” if you hire all the best virtuosos and put them on stage. And you might think that great solution architecture happens all by itself if you procure all the best-of-breed cloud applications/vendors out there and smack them into your enterprise architecture. Chances are you will survive (despite an excess of bass solos), but you will definitely get better music or business value with the help of good orchestration – sticking to a theme, having clear leadership and a vision of what to execute, when, where and by whom.

Lean communication

During a jazz gig, sudden response from the audience may tease the band leader into an unplanned but completely meaningful change of music. A few subtle hints during 3/4 of a beat, and the whole band knows exactly what to do. The band leader doesn’t produce a 100 page Change Request blueprint and send it over to the event manager for approval – the moment would be long gone by the time it was processed. Work tightly with your partners, vendors, systems to ensure you speak the same language, and build a system of lean, trust-based communication.

There’s no excuse for sloppy technique

You might think that good songwriting, blazing stage charisma, great PowerPoints and design documents will have you covered, even if your implementation is a mess. You may even think; in the overall complexity, no one will tell the difference if I cut some corners and make up for it with other awesomeness of my “art”. However, extraordinary technique is what separates true masters from mediocre run-of-the-mill wannabes. Where Pat Metheny is adjusting timing on millisecond level in the studio and via fingertips on stage, you should be overseeing quality with the same attention to detail.

Diversity is your ticket to returning audiences

No one returns to see the one-trick pony; but audiences do return to witness Metheny cover a stunning range of genres and sonic landscapes in his shows. Likewise, an architect or vendor tightly focused on one specific hardcore genre of skills will run the risk of quickly falling out of fashion. You don’t need to be a jack of all trades, but a good literacy in multiple topics will keep you relevant.

Bass solos don’t make sense

Bass in music is like basis in SAP – or core IT operations if you will. It’s the foundation that everything builds on, it’s what keeps the wheels turning. There are extremely skilled bass players out there, and music wouldn’t rock without them. Likewise, there are extremely skilled basis consultants and IT departments, and no one disputes their importance. I admire both leagues. But never, ever, let them run the whole show!

A bass solo is like an IT department flexing it muscles and showing off a myriad of technically impressive things, which, however, simply make no sense. Clap politely if you must, and move on..

Encore: Innovate or fade away

The key to unlocking business value, extraordinary auditory sensations and staying relevant to your stakeholders instead of turning into a dinosaur, is constantly reinventing yourself. Many great jazz artists like Metheny have fearlessly challenged norms, updated their tonal and harmonic language, and embraced the latest in technology to stay relevant and fresh over decades. SAP and we are doing the same – and so should you.

Bilot Labs believes in well-orchestrated, lean adoption of diverse killer applications for efficient realization of business value. We also encourage blazing virtuosity (even among bass players and IT depts), tech wizardry, backstage parties and constant reinvention – but never at the cost of the larger goal, which needs to be driven by the audience.

The stage is yours!

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Mathias Hjelt

Country Manager, Sweden. Director, Portfolio & Offering.