The Complexities of Digital Architecture

architech digital role

Demystifying the Strangest of Digital Job Titles

Richard F Adams


I work with multiple businesses. At times I am labelled an innovator, sometimes I am the Programme Director and as currently, sometimes I am fulfilling the role of ‘architect’.

This last one confuses people, as they see many people doing a variety of different things all being referred to as architects. So, I thought it would be good to explore what one is and what they do, as well as why it is relevant and why you should think about having one. Why is the role increasingly more important, and not just another aspect of IT?


Definition and Variations

The term itself is actually pretty easily described: an architect in digital or in IT designs the structure of the technical systems as requested. However, it can get muddled as we tend to see jobs advertised for: data architects, enterprise architects, solution architects, project architects, IT architects, technical architects, digital architects, business architects, and security architects.

I am writing here about IT or digital architects.


Digital Challenges for Businesses

The world is increasingly complex, and communications, art, advertising, games and marketing are largely digitally driven. This is becoming more and more deeply embedded, and more and more creative businesses are requiring third party bought-in solutions to meet briefs, with little thought for the overall picture. Meanwhile, the overall picture is increasingly complex.

The diagram below illustrates the growing complexity in businesses, and the shifting sands in-between IT and marketing. One cannot simply draw lines around departments anymore – in the same way that one cannot divorce customers from the company – as digital has joined them together at the hip. The power of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) is growing, and the role of IT is changing to become that of a service provider, not an infrastructure builder.

This means that what was once under the control of one department is now spread across multiple. Single business departments are deploying off-the-shelf services themselves, but tend to require connecting to internal systems first. From the point of view of marketing, the landscape has become one of many, many systems: systems sometimes used once and sometimes continually. Companies therefore increasingly need someone to take control of digital and IT systems on the ground floor. Many marketers talk tech but have never actually faced the complexity that comes with deployment: the connecting and developing of constantly new and emerging platforms and services.

I drew this about 5 years ago, and it largely still holds true. It shows how the layers within a business are colliding and producing new stresses, as well as how audiences and new technologies are exerting their pull. With such shifting roles, and reliance on technology embedded deep, the challenges for businesses are ever larger and more multi-dimensional. This is where the role of an architect comes in.

digital job

The role arose due to there being a need to manage this ever increasing complexity in IT. In an environment where there are multiple systems (often systems within systems; for example, security within sign-on within a platform within a service) and multiple routes for information to travel, someone needs to keep a map. These people tend to be architects. IT is now a mainstream requirement, so the need for this role has also become more and more mainstream.


The Value of Digital Architects

Now you might say that you, in your business, don’t need such a function, and you’d be happy for this role to stay in IT. You may be right, but complexity is ever increasing and CMOs are getting control of more and more of the traditional IT spend. If you’re a marketing agency or a director reading this, think about the amount of services and technologies you use. I bet you hand the management over to the ‘Head of Digital’ – or another equally redundant role – and forget all about it. Now look at the number of technologies you use and look ahead into the future, and think about the way agencies are having to change: moving from campaigns to services. Services are digital complexity writ large, and once you go down that route, the number of variables increase dramatically.

Looking at it as someone who has been both Head of Digital and a Consultant Architect, I can see the latter replacing the former role. A Chief Digital Officer is closest in spirit to the latter, but often that role becomes a figurehead, and in many cases it is a job that should make itself disappear as continual digital development becomes more valuable than sudden transformations.

Ad agencies have strategists, buyers, planners and ‘Head of Digital’ roles that have appeared and grown with the complex traditional media market, but now we don’t just have channels, we have physical networks, the cloud, data and integration, and a plethora of emergent technologies to cope with. Businesses are now nodes in a mesh of technologies, yet creative industries haven’t yet adapted to the need to manage this complexity. This is where architects come into their own.

Architects manage this new world, they impartially advocate tech solutions, they understand and manage risk, and they make informed decisions on whether or not to kill off a given technology solution. Crucially, they manage the ever increasing complexity of the area, and they do so by really getting under the hood of what clients are asking for and how it might work. They create the roadmap, they identify the route, and they are usually very flexible. They understand the technology and how it all joins together.

As you grow, can you afford to be without one?


richard adams

Richard Adams

Richard has been creating new digital products, games and art since 1990, but most recently has been designing and leading digital transformation programmes, working with data, AI and enterprise architecture. He has worked in senior roles at The Royal Shakespeare Company, Microsoft Studios, Aviva, BSkyB, BBC and others. He has also founded a university digital arts department, helped launch the School of Communication Arts, held a Visiting Professorship and is currently Visiting Senior Fellow at Lincoln University. A published author, he also writes and releases contemporary music, writes science fiction tales and photographs his environment.

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