Are traditional enterprise architecture metaphors valid?

“It is useful to be aware that analogies are tools for leverage, and indeed part of their utility is not just in extracting the insights they bring with, but insights are also stimulated if we look for where the analogy falls short.” – Ruth Malan

Forrester‘s Jeff Scott wrote and excellent blog post recently challenging the veracity of the two common metaphors for EA: The enterprise architect as building architect and the enterprise architect as city planner.

The former is the classic metaphor for enterprise architecture, primarily because it is so readily understood by non-ea practitioners. EA is to business as traditional architect is to buildings.

The latter is a view that I turned to about 3 years ago, as my view of EA matured and as I began to work on developing the Queensland Government Enterprise Architecture and looking not only through the lens of an overarching, framework but also at a massive federated enterprise like the Queensland Government.

Jeff insightfully points out the differences between building architecture and enterprise architecture as follows (summary):

  • Building architects get paid for creating architecture, not buildings. In most cases the architect gets paid when the blueprints are complete.
  • Building architects work from requirements. Their clients provide very specific requirements for what they want to be designed. EAs generally have to figure out what they are architecting and then sell it to the client.
  • Building architects usually start with a green field. EAs almost never work in a green field environment. Most of what they do at the enterprise level is renovation.

 “A theory has only the alternative of being right or wrong. A model has a third possibility: it may be right, but irrelevant.” — Manfred Eigen, (1927 -), The Physicist’s Conception of Nature, 1973.

With respect to the town planner vs EA comparison:
  • City planners build plans, not cities.
  • City planners have laws that back up what they say. Needless to say, EAs don’t.
  • City planners work on long-term visions. City planners work at a glacial pace compared to the typical enterprise architect. City planners generally think in decades. Even the most strategic businesses use three to five years as their planning horizon.

What metaphor would I use? Well I don’t think that I will ever abandon the clichés. After all clichés tend to have become popular because they are right but I think what is missing from these metaphors is the mediator role (listener, communicator, empath) and so I will always add some commentary about the role of emotional intelligence in successful EA.

 Analogies are not identities. And analogies are useful in blends and transforms, more than simply straight up. And different analogies help us make different points or draw on different insights, serving different contexts. – Ruth Malan

Ed – This post has been expanded in a follow up post that includes (at the time of writing) about 20 enterprise architecture analogies and metaphors.


  • Enterprise Architecture Analogies (
  • Enterprise Architecture Analogy Round Up (Ruth Malan)
  • A second thought piece on analogies by Ruth Malan (highly recommend)
  • Avoiding the Standard Metaphors for Enterprise Architecture (Doug Newdick)
  • Civil Engineering Analogy to Enterprise Architecture: Flawed (Nick Malik)
  • Let’s Get Beyond The Tired, Out-Of-Date EA Metaphors (Jeff Scott)


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