What is the next big thing in technology? Everyone is always looking for the new, and different – but what if the next big era of IT is already here? I sat down with Martijn Akse, Head of Enterprise and Solution Architecture at Aegon NL, to talk about “The Third Era of IT Architecture.” 

Martijn, thanks for joining us today. How did this all come about? 

Aegon, like many organisations, had to evolve to keep pace with the velocity of the third era of IT architecture. During our transformation, we learned a number of critical lessons – and came to some conclusions that other companies can also learn from. 

Tell us about the “third era of architecture,” and can you outline how it’s different from the first and second eras? 

The first era of IT architecture was primarily focused on technology. Vendors ruled. They dictated organizations roadmap through technology lock-in. The result is that IT landscape was minimal.

The second era of IT architecture, saw a shift towards business-IT alignment and value for the business. More change was introduced in the IT landscape often leading to interdependencies and challenges in the area of integration. Complex architectural modelling was key to understand the cohesion between business proposition, process, applications and infrastructure.

The third era is all about customer centricity and impact in an ecosystem. The Internet and mobile give customers the power to choose services they love. Organisations look to data analytics to predict customer behavior and take action.

New technologies including the Internet of Things, and connected devices are introduced every day. IT has to change to be a partner with the business, and deliver customer success.

Are there some specific ideas that companies should focus on? 

Flexibility is the first and most important point. Flexibility in your enterprise architecture is key. Use APIs in order to create clear demarcation points. Open APIs up to external parties where needed and possible. Use data as power source, make sure it complies with all regulations for use, and make it easy to plug into.

Another important point is to learn how to extract information and knowledge from data. Create a strategy based on the three following points: Decision latency (do we really need <1 ms real time decision making?), Outcome (what you want to achieve with analytics and how should the follow up actions look like), and sourcing (decide where you can use external analytics services, or build it all yourself).

As an IT department, your stakeholders are the business and the customer. Take part in meetings in cross-functional meeting from the beginning. Tailor the language of vision/strategy and viewpoints on architecture to your audience. Use new ways (video, animation, app prototypes) to bring your message across.

Anything else companies should focus on when considering the third era of architecture? 

Absolutely! First, I recommend strongly that companies look to Lego™ for their approach and compose architectural building blocks in reference architectures usable by everyone. Rationalise and eliminate multiple building blocks with the same purpose and limit the implement options to no more than three. Agile teams demand freedom in execution and they need constraints. Give only the required blocks to agile teams to play with. Experiment, and adjust continually. 

Remember, just as in a playground, people need rules to structure their playtime. But I encourage companies to keep the rules to the bare minimum – e.g. non-negotiables such as regulatory requirements and key architectural principles. Create validation points for non-negotiables and explain what the business rationale is to have a specific validation point. The non-negotiables should guarantee the correct functioning of the enterprise architecture model that enables enough flexibility to guarantee short time to market.

How do you implement this third-era architecture successfully? 

MA: Most importantly, companies must adopt a cloud all-in strategy. Cloud is no longer a goal by itself, but a foundation that enables flexibility in terms of scalability, performance and time to market of IT solutions. Many vendors have great ‘cloud-based-API-enabled-ready-to-be-used-out-of-the-box’ solutions. Build a chain of best-of-breed solutions in order to fulfill business requirements. Revisit the chains periodically to increase value where possible.

Finally, architecture functions in larger corporations face an additional challenge: create and maintain Enterprise Architecture that is capable of dealing with units in the second and third era of IT architecture at the same time. To be successful, it is essential that Enterprise Architecture is positioned independent of these units to guarantee fair governance and reuse.

And what are some of the benefits? 

The third era of architecture is a change in what companies have done previously. It better allows companies to try out crazy scenarios that CIOs never dreamed possible before – “moonshot” ideas. By organising multi-disciplinary brainstorm sessions, companies can more easily boost creativity and take advantage of new and different insights.

Your architecture team is in need of thrill seekers. Traditional architects often do not fit the profile. You need resources that are able to support and enable every topic described above. Creative individuals, who are fine with making mistakes, dealing with daily changes and creating architectures on the fly.

Disrupters, startups and dedicated units of corporates have already arrived in the third era of IT architecture and others will never arrive there. It all depends on the characteristics of the organization and the environment it is acting in.

What’s the big takeaway for Aegon and the Third Era of Architecture? 

At Aegon, we’ve come a long way. We have to invest daily in people and processes. Tomorrow’s leading organizations will too. They will have to define an architectural model that achieves many of the 10 factors of third-era IT. Success is never guaranteed, but I do know that if you don’t start changing today, your competitors will leave you behind.

A huge thank you to Martijn for those insightful answers! If you're preparing yourself for this exciting new era, a great starting point would be this How to Jumpstart Your Journey to the Cloud e-book - happy readings! 

Much of this content was originally featured in the Salesforce PartnerZone on Diginomica.com: Succeeding in the third era of IT architecture