Our very own Paul Preiss, sits down for an in-depth interview with Gabriel Morgan the Director of Enterprise Architect and Strategic Planning at REI.
Paul Preiss: The thing I’d like to focus on today, Gabriel, is your role and vision as a Director of Enterprise Architect and Strategic Planning at REI, with that being such a significant business function and with REI’s record growth. Obviously, you reached 2 billion last year and that’s a major retail milestone and obviously that happened very quickly, as I understand it took 67 years to get to a billion and then 8 to get to 2 billion, is that correct?
Gabriel Morgan: I think it’s actually less than 8 when they got to the second billion within the last 5 to 6 years, we’ve had rapid growth especially interesting coming off of an economy collapse, that’s just tremendous.
Paul Preiss: I’d like you to tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and then your role and direction that you’re taking or that you’ve taken on. What direction were you given in terms of your role as Director of Architecture and Strategy?
Gabriel Morgan: I have about 20 years IT experience from various IT-related roles. About 8 years in enterprise architecture roles. My career started primarily as a software developer, spending time writing applications for the financial industry, media, government projects, and just all over the place. A goal of mine throughout my career has been achieving business value through technology.
I was repeatedly disappointed in my early years trying to write the highest quality code learning that it may have been the wrong application to start with all together. As I grew in seniority and scope of responsibilities, I took on architect roles, Test Lead roles, and Program Manager roles. Eventually, I found myself in enterprise architecture roles. As an Enterprise Architect, the aim is to design the right architecture processes and roles to define the right problems to solve and solve them with the highest system quality.
Just 5 months ago, I accepted the position of Director of Enterprise Architecture and Strategic Planning at REI. I am accountable for architecture within REI. Although I report to IT, my scope is the entire company and beyond. I include our suppliers and partners and how we interact with them. It’s a lot of scope and it’s tons of fun.
I’ve also taken on the responsibility of our IT Portfolio Planning function, which makes me accountable for managing IT’s strategic planning process. Having the responsibility of Enterprise Architecture and IT Portfolio Planning allows me to provide REI an output of continuous strategic alignment and system quality improvement.
Paul Preiss: Compared to your previous employer, Microsoft, what have you noticed about the difference in style and approach and going from consultative role to an ownership role inside of REI?
Gabriel Morgan: That’s a great question. I was with Microsoft for 13 years. The first 6 years as a consultant traveling the world providing solutions to Microsoft customers. The last 7 years of my career at Microsoft was in various enterprise architecture roles in various Microsoft divisions; Corporate IT, Online Services, XBOX division, then back to the Consulting division. However, when I returned to consulting, I was part of the corporate strategy and planning function, involved in managing the consulting business, not as a consultant.
Most of Microsoft’s implementation of enterprise architecture functions is very consultative in nature. Microsoft is a huge organization with a lot of really smart folks but lacks clear, crisp accountabilities and decision rights. In light of this structure, most architecturally-significant decisions are made by each division’s senior leadership with consultative advice from their enterprise architecture teams. Enterprise Architects tend to perform an influencer role.
I think through that experience, spending years doing that, the only way you get traction is if you’re fantastic and highly-skilled in influencing others. You learn how to communicate well. You learn how to adapt to lots of different styles and personalities. You learn how to describe architecture in very, very simple language so that it’s easy to consume to take action, but ultimately there’s no accountability and leads to, well, a very complicated situation at times.
When I joined REI one of the core prerequisites I was looking for was accountability for architecture decisions and luckily the people here are absolutely fabulous and they’re wide open to new ideas. I got a chance to make the case for why we would need to build the architect roles and responsibilities with specific decision rights, and it was adopted with open arms. We have established here at REI architect roles and responsibilities that include decision rights such as: All technology decisions and solution architectures as the basis for all project charters and strategy alignment as a requirement for calculating business value.
It’s been a very fast-paced and rapid adaption rate of ideas that are bleeding edge enterprise architecture methods learned over the years. We simply avoid much of the typical political churn can occur in other companies. REI is a very different place and I can’t say enough about it. REI is the greatest outdoor retailer in the world and it’s all because of the fabulous people that work here. It’s a pleasure working with the folks in REI every day.
Paul Preiss: That leads us to another question and to the idea about the type of company that REI is. Can you tell us a little bit about the business and specifically I’m interested in what’s got you excited as you’re coming in, in your first 12 months? Where are you looking? Looking left, looking right, looking up, looking down, are you looking at the bottom line business? If so, you had mentioned in your previous discussion creating business value and we hear a lot of that, we hear a lot of that, sort of, “And we have to create business value.”
But I’m curious about in the outdoor retail business and REI in specific, what’s got you excited? What are the business trends, and even the technology trends or arenas that you see that you most are passionate about in pushing REI into?
Gabriel Morgan: That’s a great question and one I want to dive into. Working in such a fantastic work environment, the challenges from leading change have nothing to do with politically-induced inhibitors but rather being very deliberate about which changes to implement and when – so that we don’t require too much change and overwhelm the organization. At REI, we have a level of spirited core that I’ve never witnessed before. Harnessing that passion and focusing on our sights on optimizing IT to support strategic direction in our brand and market position, sets us up for amazing growth. We’ve already had some amazing growth but that is not where we’ll end up in 3 or 5 years. We have so much more to achieve – it’s exciting times.
The strategy is nothing short of brilliant. It’s great to be a part of it. Let me answer the question around, how we are using and thinking of business value.
A core principle of mine is the notion that business strategy is the most interesting expression of business value, and that the measurable achievement of business strategy is essentially business performance. They are all tightly connected; perhaps even synonyms for each other. We assume this is the case and therefore have begun adopting the balanced scorecard methodology because it is the most proven business performance management methodology in existence. I think sometimes the term “balanced scorecard” throws people off as it’s not really the scorecard itself that is important but rather the methodology. The balanced scorecard methodology is really quite substantial in terms of how to define strategy and to continuously gain organizational strategic alignment across a company. It is a muscle and discipline for continuous improvement to achieve greater levels of business strategy a.k.a. business performance a.k.a. business value.
Luckily, at REI we’ve begun to bring in new leadership to deliberately structure REI and position it for rapid growth. REI has been around since 1938. That’s a long time and it’s done really well. However, senior leadership felt that it was time that REI build greater management discipline to lead the company towards greater business growth.
As our business groups organize themselves for scalable business growth, IT is following suit. We are organizing IT groups towards business process areas (aka domains) to make business performance the primary measure of success. Architects are aligned to each domain with an added success measure of improve system quality. The result is a set of IT groups dedicated to achieve business strategy while improving system quality at the same time.
Paul Preiss: Can you tell me a little bit more about the retail business and where it’s headed? With an outdoor product that’s high touch, a product that you know you’re going to have to depend on in a potentially high-performance outdoor environment – How does the need to have “showroom quality” affect the team or how you see that impacting REI’s strategy or other retail technology trends in terms of channel synthesizations? How do you prevent the customer from the going into a store, playing with something, and then buying a cheaper online or someplace else? I’m just curious what you see the big trends in retail and what and how those are going to impact REI’s strategy in the near term?
Gabriel Morgan: That’s a great question. As we all know, there’s no such thing as no competition. However REI is a specialty retailer and by definition our competitive advantage is not be in competition. Instead, we focus on Blue Ocean strategies to avoid becoming a mass retailer. Our strength is in our mission to bring people outdoors. No other outdoor retailer is better positioned nor equipped to delivery on such a mission. We have a sense of duty to lead the way. Showrooming is an interesting concept but that is something more of a concern for mass retailers. Customers and Members come to REI not only to get competitively priced products but to also receive expert advice from our staff, perhaps sign-up for outdoor classes from our REI Outdoor School, or schedule an outdoor adventure using REI Travel. That end-to-end experience is simply unattainable via an online experience.
REI staff are experts in various outdoor activities like climbing, backpacking, kayaking, etc. We specifically hire fantastic people with outdoor skillsets. When customers and members come to REI, we engage them and open up conversations about where they’re headed, what they’ll need, and we match the right product to fit their needs and have an amazing experience outdoors. That’s very, very powerful.
Technology is simply an enabler to complement delivery to our mission. We are leveraging technology to understand our customers and members for the purpose of getting them out to enjoy the outdoors. For example, we’re focusing on personalization to improve outdoor social networking bring more relevancy to outdoor activities and the gear to equip them and mobility to help simplify accessing information and performing transactions. Underpinning these technologies is a focus on infrastructure services to support them such as; master data management, business analytic services, and cloud.
We partner with our business groups to understand our business strategies, then innovate how to continuously achieve it better, faster, and cheaper through technology.
Paul Preiss: That’s great. You’re clearly a major part of that innovation capacity. Let’s switch to that in a little bit and talk a little bit about what your focus is going to be for the first 12 months, 12-24 months. When you’re done with the first 12 months and then the first 24, what are your big three? What are your transformations that you’re focused on as a part of your role?
Gabriel Morgan: We’re 5 months into my plan. First, establish our architecture system (people, process and tools) that defines the architecture discipline and fill architecture positions to ensure enterprise coverage. Next, invest in our Architects via an Architect Care and Feeding campaign to deliberately build the architect skills and prepare them for their accountabilities. Lastly, establish a portfolio planning process where Architects have a critical role to perform; decide on the technologies and shape projects to deliver business value while simultaneously improve system quality.
I am focusing on growth and laying down the foundational architecture, systems architecture, and infrastructure architecture in particular to essentially raise the quality of reuse of information. That’s super important so we can connect information across business lines and improve the experience for our customers and members.
Another way of describing our approach is that we are conscious about balancing both Operational Efficiency and Business Effectiveness. Having the opportunity to design our IT Portfolio Planning function and Architecture function, gives us the ability to deliberately achieve both themes.
Paul Preiss: I’d like to pull out that question there around portfolio planning and architecture. This is a hot topic related to organizations that either do or don’t have a PMO, and in either case the effective … What should the architects role be within those organizations and what are they there at REI?
Gabriel Morgan: That really is the secret sauce for us here. Essentially, we’ve adapted a design principle where we organize resources around business process areas, aka domains. Domain such as; supply chain, retail stores, merchandising, etc. Each domain has a scorecard describing their business performance targets derived from strategic planning. This is how project portfolios are prioritized.
Architects are accountable to define solution architectures for every project in each of the domain’s project portfolio. The solution architectures implicitly include future state architecture assertions traceable to improving system quality. Therefore, all projects that are approved to be delivered are scoped to delivery business value while simultaneously improving system qualities such as Availability, Security, Flexibility, etc.
In REI, we have three Architect Titles, Enterprise Architect, Domain Architect, and Solution Architect. Enterprise Architects are the most senior and are accountable to design the architecture system and be the highest point of technology-decision escalation. They define what an Architect is and does. Domain Architects are accountable for a specific portfolio of applications and information encapsulated to a process area. Domain Architects are the primary technology decision makers and provide direction and guidance to project-level Solution Architects to execute against.
The Domain Architect is a very interesting role in REI. We’ve designed the role for success by empowering the role to have decision-making ability for the technology decisions, which technology to use, how it should be used, the investment disposition of them, the future state, the API definition, message schemas. Essentially, Domain Architects are a multi-disciplinary architect role responsible for all the process information, application and infrastructure within that domain.
An important characteristic we’ve put in place is positioning Domain Architects to be directly managed by senior IT Leaders accountable for IT groups oriented toward business process areas/domains. In REI, IT Directors are people managers and assigned to business process areas/domains. Their measure of success is their scorecard and they are equipped with Architects and project delivery resources to achieve scorecard KPI targets while improving system quality.
IT is often asked simple questions like “what’s the value of that project?” or “What’s the value of that team?” For many IT organizations, that’s a frightening conversation. For us, answering them is natural to the design of our IT organization and processes we perform. We are set-up for success to measurably deliver business performance improvement.
Paul Preiss: What kind of advice would you give to teams that are trying to integrate their architects into a powerful PMO or a powerful business relationship management infrastructure that doesn’t traditionally allow the architect that kind of role? What kind of advice would you give them to begin getting to that level?
Gabriel Morgan: PMOs often struggle to achieve strategic alignment. Instead of trying to teach a PMO how to do strategic alignment, we simply separate Portfolio Planning from Project Delivery. Of course, the two are directly connected. However their processes and cadence are different. We’ve adopted strategic planning methods to define our portfolio planning process, then look to lean SDLC processes to deliver projects. We follow a federated model to portfolio decision-making. Portfolio planning is centrally defined and monitored and the execution is distributed to the IT Directors bound to domains/process areas. The result is federated accountability to empower senior IT leaders with resources decisions but to the confines of achieving business performance.
I hate to presuppose the model we’ve chosen is appropriate for other organizations. It works here at REI because of the company’s culture. The people here are respectful, transparent and open to partnering. If there are any issues, we simply resolve them together. Federating resources, including Architects, to the IT Directors strengthens the IT team’s accountability to their success criteria; business performance and system quality.
Having said that, here are a few suggestions any organization could consider that I think are important to setting up the system to work; 1) Have a portfolio planning process that continuously meets to realign execution to strategy where project are accountable to achieve measurable business KPI targets. 2) Insert Architects into the portfolio planning process and equip them to be the authority to make technology decisions. 3) Hold Architects accountable for achieving business strategy via the project in their organization’s project portfolio and improving system quality for the portfolio of applications, data and infrastructure in their domain.
Paul Preiss: Can you tell me a little bit about the size and make-up of your architect team and how you’ve chosen to organize them then? We’ve heard you discuss domain architects and solution architects. Can you tell us a little bit about how you choose to organize them across $2 billion worth of business practices? That’s a lot of business to cover. I’m curious about the relationship between the size of your team, the projects they get deployed on, and the relationship between different types of architects that you have.
Gabriel Morgan: My enterprise architecture team is lean. I have two Enterprise Solution Architects focused on managing all of the process and application architectures, one Enterprise Infrastructure Architect focused on infrastructure, and one Enterprise Information Architect focused on information. I also have one IT Portfolio Planning Manager focused on managing our IT Portfolio Planning process using strategic planning as the primary discipline to make that work.
The Enterprise Architects are accountable for the entire architecture system: architect role definition, architect processes, policies, principles, standards, tools, information, etc. It’s the Enterprise Architect team’s job to make sure architecture quality is improving in each of the domains and to make the job of the Domain Architects and Solution Architects as easy as possible. The other half of the Enterprise Architect Team’s job is to aggregate architecture and represent it in corporate strategic planning meetings to help assess the impact of corporate strategies. Enterprise Architecture is also the highest point of escalation if necessary.
Paul Preiss: You mentioned the innovate capacity – I think you called it “ideate,” which is a popular term in the innovation community. The question I have for you is, how have you built that into or how are you building that into your culture and at the lowest levels, especially you’re focusing on techniques that are our readers or our members might be able to duplicate to be able to start that innovative capacity?
Because we consistently hear that the architect is an innovative role, a creative role, and a business strategist role, but we often hear also some push back especially at the, we call it software/solution levels, for being able to get involved in that innovative level, and to be able to propose projects for themselves or other such things. Can you talk a little bit about how you’re building that innovation capacity into the culture and the practices of the team?
Gabriel Morgan: That’s a really fun conversation and it pops up all the time. I subscribe to the line of thinking from business management schools where IT is like any business support organization. Therefore, IT’s role is to a) support the business’ strategy and b) continuously improve. Innovation is simply performing the organization’s mission in a way that optimizes delivery on faster, better, cheaper. In this case, IT contributes to innovating new ways of doing things to achieve business strategies better, faster and cheaper. We do this via our recurring portfolio planning process. Where IT can provide technical ideas or process improvements to achieve business strategy, we do it in partnership with our business groups.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. I mentioned earlier we have domains and they are governed by business performance of those domains. This business performance targets such as “We need to improve our productivity from x to y” or “We need to improve our customer satisfaction results from x to y.” IT contributes to portfolio planning via providing IT services to achieve or exceed those targets. There are times when IT suggests usage of technologies to achieve business strategies in new ways. This is responsible innovation. It’s our role in the company.
However, and for, maybe or at some point throughout the year, hopefully, what should happen is a review of the business performance, if the business performance deemed impacted and it is upon, if you will, on target, things are going well or not instead a result of that, the team needs to re-shift resources to achieve performance.
Paul Preiss: In getting to the product and the service space, having come from a vendor yourself, as well as, obviously now working either, or side by side with other vendors at that time, or now having the product and service vendor approach you as obviously as providers for innovation in your space, what are the challenges and the opportunities that you see for organizations to better partner? What are the thresholds for that to ensure that that partnership is beneficial to both sides?
Traditionally, the vendor to customer relationship has been at best a slightly back and forth, about a negotiation, and sometimes at worst it’s about outright competition and difficulty. What do you see as essential as we move to a more, as though the world moves to a more integrated cloud-based, service-based environment in building a strong technology and service supply chain that can be … at least the risk can be governed effectively, as well as they can augment the opportunity for strategic innovation?
Gabriel Morgan: There’s so much to talk about on that topic. I’ll start with this as a guiding principle of leveraging techniques from business management. In this case the concept of cascading strategy. In the context of strategic planning, cloud providers, service providers, outsourcing providers, etc. are all the same things: They’re suppliers. The trick is describe our business’ success, then cascade to the suppliers their accountability to achieving our success. Let’s say Organization A is being supported by Organization B, whether that’s internal or external it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the discipline of strategic planning exists to keep the two organizations continuously aligned. To do that, is when cascading down one’s strategy is to share accountability for that strategy that stands internal and external organization.
I’ll give you a case in point about my work. Here in REI we use a lot of SaaS providers for our systems. We have SLAs built with KPI Targets describing desired performance. We cascade our KPI Targets to our SaaS providers to hold them contractually to business performance we accept as our success measure. Although this requires transparency and discipline to make sure that everyone is in line, it’s really just that simple.
Even my own Enterprise Architecture team is run like that. I’m very transparent. When I work with different partners and suppliers to help support our Architecture efforts such as architect recruiting agencies, training and certification organizations, Architect communities IASA, I start the conversation with “Here is my scorecard. It describes what success looks like for the architecture function”. For me to engage in a professional relationship with you, I ask the Partner/Supplier to inherit my objectives and KPIs so that they take accountability and responsibility for my success.
By the way, this isn’t a new concept, it’s just applying strategic planning concepts largely taken from the balanced scorecard methodology. It’s a really powerful tool to gain alignment across the organizations, inclusive of interacting with partners and suppliers of REI.
Paul Preiss: What advice do you have for other IASA members and non-members alike? Is there any advice that you have for folks out there getting started on their business technology strategy, getting started on some of the topics that we’ve talked about or just in general, anything that you think is important and things you’d like to mention at the end?
Gabriel Morgan: One thing I think is important is to remember that IT is just another business support organization within the greater company. IT’s role is to provide process automation and manage digital assets. That is, IT is the substrate of business process and cannot be separated from the business. So, it’s not so much about ‘aligning’ IT to the business as it is about it being integrated with the business. In fact, I like to think of the situation being how to improve the cohesiveness between IT and the business. When IT organizations focus on “alignment” or “Innovation” via introduction of things like IT Business Architects or the like, those situations often scare me because it suggests that the IT organization has forgotten their purpose and is a sort of identity crisis. It’s not that complicated. Stay focused on the point of IT and look to improving business management methods in both the business groups supported by IT and the IT organization itself to stay connected.