The Quest for Underpinning Theory of Enterprise Architecture
General Systems Theory
Nestori Syynimaa
Faculty of Information Technology, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland
Gerenios Ltd, Tampere, Finland
Keywords: Enterprise Architecture, Theory, General Systems Theory.
Abstract: Enterprise architecture originates from the 1980’s. It emerged among ICT practitioners to solve complex
problems related to information systems. Currently EA is also utilised to solve business problems, although
the focus is still in ICT and its alignment with business. EA can be defined as a description of the current and
future states of the enterprise, and as a change between these states to meet stakeholder’s goals. Despite its
popularity and 30 years of age, the literature review conducted on top information and management science
journals revealed that EA is still lacking the sound theoretical foundation. In this conceptual paper, we propose
General Systems Theory (GST) for underpinning theory of EA. GST allows us to see enterprises as systems
of systems consisting of, for instance, social organisations, humans, information systems and computers. This
explains why EA can be used to describe the enterprise and its components, and how to control them to
execute the managed change. Implications to science and practice, and some directions for future research are
also provided.
Enterprise architecture (EA) has a long history dating
back to 1980’s, although there are some debate on
who first introduced the concept (Kotusev, 2016). For
larger audience, John Zachman is often called the
father of EA, mainly due to his seminal publication
entitled A framework for information systems
architecture (Zachman, 1987) followed by Enterprise
Architecture: The issue of the Century (Zachman,
1997) ten years later. Originally the Zachman
framework was built to solve issues related to
increasing complexity of information systems. Today
EA is recognised as an essential reference point for
both business and technology decisions (Kien et al.,
Enterprise architecture originates from
practicum. It is a creation of software and systems
engineers, and as such, is not built on scientifically
testable foundations (Lapalme et al., 2015). One of
the thought-leaders of EA stated that it is not even
possible to have a single overarching theory of EA
(Graves, 2012; Graves, 2015). By theory we refer to
the “statements providing a lens for viewing or
explaining the world” (Gregor, 2006).
This conceptual paper aims for strengthening the
scientific foundation of enteprise architecture. We
seek to provide a type IV theory in Gregor’s
taxonomy, i.e., a theory of explanation and
prediction. To accomplish this, we draw on General
Systems Theory (GST) and demonstrate how it
underpins enterprise architecture.
The paper is structured as follows. First, in this
section, we introduce the paper. In the second section
we provide definition of EA and review the state of
the current research on EA theory. In the third section,
we introduce General Systems Theory. In the fourth
section, we discuss about enterprises as systems. In
the fifth section, we discuss on GST as a scientific
foundation of EA. Finally we provide concluding
remarks and directions for future research.
To build a sound scientific foundation for enterprise
architecture, we start by defining the concept and
review the current literature.
Syynimaa, N.
The Quest for Underpinning Theory of Enterprise Architecture - General Systems Theory .
DOI: 10.5220/0006314904000408
In Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems (ICEIS 2017) - Volume 3, pages 400-408
ISBN: 978-989-758-249-3
Copyright © 2017 by SCITEPRESS Science and Technology Publications, Lda. All rights reserved
2.1 Definition of Enterprise
Currently there are no single accepted definition for
enterprise architecture. Thus, we need to draw on
various existing definitions from the literature.
Gartner defines EA as “a discipline for
proactively and holistically leading enterprise
responses to disruptive forces by identifying and
analyzing the execution of change toward desired
business vision and outcomes” (Gartner, 2013). As
such, EA can be seen as an activity aiming for
survival of an enterprise.
The Open Group defines architecture as “a formal
description of a system, or a detailed plan of the
system at component level, to guide its
implementation” and “the structure of components,
their inter-relationships, and the principles and
guidelines governing their design and evolution over
time” (The Open Group, 2009, p. 9). These
definitions implies that EA is a structure and a
description of an enterprise.
Zachman defines architecture as “that set of
design artifacts, or descriptive representations, that
are relevant for describing an object such that it can
be produced to requirements (quality) as well as
maintainded over the period of its useful life
(change)” (Zachman, 1997). This definition is in line
with the previous one; it sees EA as a structure and its
MIT Center for Information Systems Research
(CISR) defines EA as “the organizing logic for
business process and IT capabilities reflecting the
integration and standardization requirements of the
firm’s operating model” (MIT CISR, 2016). CISR
also defines EA as description of an enterprise.
However, EA is limited only to business processes
and IT capabilities. As such, this definition limits EA
to certain domains.
The Federation of Enterprise Architecture
Professional Organizations (FEAPO) defines EA as
“a well-defined practice for conducting enterprise
analysis, design, planning, and implementation, using
a holistic approach at all times, for the successful
development and execution of strategy” (FEAPO,
2013, p. 11). Similar to Gartner’s definition, FEAPO
sees EA as an activity aiming for strategic
ISO/IEC/IEEE 42010 Systems and software
engineering – Architecture description standard
defines architecture as “fundamental concepts or
properties of a system in its environment embodied in
its elements, relationships, and in the principles of its
design and evolution” (ISO/IEC/IEEE, 2011, p. 2).
This definition also sees EA as a structure and its
As the former definitions demonstrates, enterprise
architecture is a vague concept. However, there are
two concepts which are shared by the definitions.
These are a formal description of the current and
future states of an enterprise, and a managed change
between these states to meet stakeholders’ goals
(Syynimaa, 2015).
Enterprise architecture descriptions are divided to
layers or domains. Typically there are four layers,
namely business, information (or data), information
systems, and technology (The Open Group, 2009;
van't Wout et al., 2010).
2.2 Current Research on Theory of
Enterprise Architecture
The major contribution for any scientific discipline is
likely to be found in the leading journals (Webster
and Watson, 2002). Therefore, we first searched top
eight journals of Information Systems (IS) field as
rated by Association of Information Systems (AIS,
2011) for the term “enterprise architecture”. From the
top IS journals between 2000 and 2016, we found 77
articles. Further analysis of the articles revealed that
only 24 were actual enterprise architecture articles. It
is notable that the leading IS journal, MIS Quarterly,
had no EA articles at all. However, although the MIS
Quarterly Executive (MISQE) is not one of the
leading IS journals, we decided to include it into our
review. As a result, we found 10 EA articles from
MISQE. This encouraged us to expand the search to
include the top Management Science (MS) journals
as rated by Chartered Association of Business
Schools (ABS, 2010). Disappointingly, we did not
found any enterprise architecture articles from MS
None of the found articles were related to the
theory of enterprise architecture. Therefore the search
was expanded to include the Journal of Enterprise
Architecture (JEA), which is the only journal
dedicated to enterpise architecture. We reviewed all
JEA issues between 2005 and 2016 to find EA theory
articles. As a result, we found eight articles. Most of
the articles were about different variations of system
theories, such as Viable System Model (VSM). For
instance, Zadeh et al. (2012) studied VSM as a
theoretical basis for EA principles, whereas Lapalme
and de Guerre (2012) and Jensen-Waud (2011)
studied EA as a socio-technical system. Sidorova and
Kappelman (2011) used Actor-Network Theory
(ANT) to study how EA could be better utilised for
IT-business alignment.
The Quest for Underpinning Theory of Enterprise Architecture - General Systems Theory
According to leading enterprise architecture
scholars, its scientific foundation needs to be
strenghtened (Lapalme et al., 2015). The reviewed
articles did not provide such a foundation. Moreover,
the number of enterprise architecture articles in top IS
journals indicates that EA as a scientific discipline is
still immature. Finally, the results from top MS
journals indicates that enterprise architecture is still
seen purely as an ICT-issue.
Next phase on our journey to build a sound scientific
foundation for enterprise architecture is to introduce
our theoretical perspective: General Systems Theory
(GST). GST was originally introduced by von
Bertalanffy (1951). Its purpose is to be “a body of
systematic theoretical constructs which will discuss
the general relationships of the empirical world”
(Boulding, 1956). In other words, it is a way of
thinking about, or an approach to study, the empirical
world (Von Bertalanffy, 1968).
Key concept of GST is a system. It can be defined
as a “set of things working together as parts of a
mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex
whole” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2010). Another
scientific discipline closely related to systems is
cybernetics. It can be defined as a scientific study of
controlling and communication in animal and
machine (Wiener, 1948).
3.1 Closed and Open Systems
Systems can be categorised by their openness. In this
sense, there are two types of systems: closed systems
and open systems. Closed system is a system which is
not exchanging any material or information with its
environment (see Figure 1). Environment refers to a
“context determining the setting and circumstances of
all influences upon a system” (ISO/IEC/IEEE, 2011,
p. 2).
Figure 1: Closed system.
As an example, a (well insulated) coffee cup with
its lid on is a closed system: we cannot see inside it,
and it does not emit heat nor light.
The open systems are systems which are
interacting with their environment, e.g., exchanging
material and information. Continuing the previous
coffee cup example, if we remove the lid from the
coffee cup, it becomes an open system: we can see
inside it and we can sense whether its hot. We can
also stir the content and even drink the content. By
stirring we are providing input to the system and by
drinking we are consuming its output.
Figure 2: Open system.
3.2 Systems and Feedback Loops
Some open systems have a feedback loop (Ashby,
1957) which makes the system controllable. The
system with a feedback loop is illustrated in Figure 3.
Such a system is feeding at least some of its output
back to system as an input.
Figure 3: Feedback loop.
There are two types of feedback loops, positive
feedback and negative feedback (Ashby, 1957).
System with a positive feedback either increases or
decreases indefinitively (Figure 4). An example of a
positive feedback system is a population with a fixed
positive birthrate. A number of births per year
depends on the size of the population, which, in turn,
increases the population. And when the population
grows, the number of births per year also increases,
leading to an exponential growth and finally into
destruction of the system. If the fixed birthrate would
be negative, the population would be destroyed due to
input output
input output
ICEIS 2017 - 19th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
Figure 4: Positive feedback.
Negative feedback, as illustrated in Figure 5,
requires a sensor and a controller which makes the
system adaptive, i.e., controllable. The controller
controls the system by adjusting the input, and the
output is monitored with the sensor. The controller
has a known reference value where the output is
compared to. The variation from the reference value
leads to negative correction, adjusting the system
towards a desired goal as illustrated in Figure 6.
Figure 5: Feedback control.
A classic example of negative feedback system is
a radiator with a thermostat. If the starting
temperature of the room is higher than the
temperature selected by the thermostat, the waterflow
to radiator is closed. When the temperature decreases
below the desired temperature, the waterflow to
radiator is opened again. Eventually this leads to the
desired room temperature. This kind of state of self
regulatory system, which is keeping its state almost
constant, is called homeostasis (Cannon, 1932).
Figure 6: Negative feedback.
Let’s discuss about controlling the system in more
detail. Ashby introduced his famous Law of Requisite
Variety in 1957: “Control can be obtained only if the
variety of the controller is at least as great as the
variety of the situation to be controlled” (Ashby,
1957). In common terms the law can be stated as
follows. In order to the system remain stable, the
number of states of the control mechanism of the
system must be greater or equal to the number of the
states of the system itself. In other words, you can
keep the system stable by controlling it only if you
have at least as many controlling options than there
are possible factors affecting the state of the system.
We can demonstrate this using the previous radiator
example. If we study the radiator as a system and a
thermostat as a controller, we find that there are only
two states: water is flowing in radiator or it is not.
This is also what the thermostat can control, so we
can state that the system is stable according to
Ashby’s law. However, if we widen our scope and
study the room where the radiator is located as a
system, the situation is quite opposite. We have a
radiator with a thermostat which can heat the room.
The maximum theoretical temperature of the room is
therefore the maximum temperature of the radiator.
We can choose the desired temperature of the room
by adjusting the radiator’s thermostat. However, what
we cannot adjust is the outside temperature. So, if we
let the desired room temperature to be +20 C, the
maximum temperature of the radiator +60 C, and the
outside temperature -80 C, the water of the radiator
eventually freezes and the system breaks. The given
example here is simplified and does not take into
account for instance the insulation of the room etc.,
but gives a general view what Ashby’s law means.
3.3 Hierarchy of Systems
General Systems Theory allows us to see the
empirical world as a system of systems. This system
of systems is an “arrangement of theoretical systems
and constructs in a hierarchy of complexity
(Boulding, 1956, p. 202). This hierarchy can be seen
in Table 1. Next we will walk through these different
Table 1: Boulding's Hierarchy of Systems.
9 Transcendental S
8 Social Or
7 Human Beings
4 Cells
3 Thermostats
input output
The Quest for Underpinning Theory of Enterprise Architecture - General Systems Theory
First level, called frameworks, is that of the static
structure, such as the pattern of atoms in a molecule.
The second level, called clockworks, is that of simple
dynamic system, such as a solar system, a molecule,
or a machine. The third level, called thermostat, is
that of the control mechanism or cybernetic system.
The fourth level, called cells, is that of open systems
or self maintaining structures, such as cells. This is
also the level where life differentiates itself from not
life. The fifth level, called plant, is that of genetic-
societal. In this level, for instance, there are division
of labor among cells. However, there are no highly
specialised sense organs or information receptors.
The sixth level is called animal. This level is
characterised by increased mobility, teleological
behaviour and self-awareness. There are higly
specialised sense organs, such as eyes and ears. The
seventh level is called human beings, where an
individual human is considered as a system. This
level differentiates from the animal level for instance
by the self consciousness. The eighth level is called
social organisation. This level regards social
organisations as a system of humans, where humans
are not persons but roles. That is, one person can be
part of many different social organisations. The ninth
level is called transcendental. This level includes
ultimates and absolutes, and the inescapable
unkowables that have a systematic structure and
relationships, such as, religions. (Boulding, 1956).
Now that we have introduced the enterprise
architecture and General Systems Theory, we can
discuss enterprises as systems.
4.1 Definition of Enterprise
The simplest definition for an enterprise is “a
business or a company” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2010).
A bit wider definition is “any collection of
organisations that has a common set of goals” (The
Open Group, 2009, p. 5). This includes also
enterprises which are not businesses per se, such as,
organisational departments or public sector agencies.
Moreover, also extended enterprises, i.e., partners,
suppliers, and customers can be included in the
enterprise (The Open Group, 2009). In this sense,
enterprise is a system defined by its boundaries. An
example of different hierarchical levels of enterprise
are illustrated in Figure 7. For instance, we can see
enterprise as a society, an industry sector, an
organisation, or a department of the organisation.
Some scholars see enterprises as socio-technical
systems consisting of people and technological
artefacts (Emery, 1972; Trist, 1981; Lapalme and
deGuerre, 2013). To our mind this view is limited as
it rules out, for instance, enterprises which are pure
social organisations. Instead, following the
Boulding’s hiearchy of systems, we define enterprise
as a social organisation defined by its boundaries and
consisting of social organisations and human beings.
Enterprise may also include clockworks and
thermostats, such as, tools, machines, computers, and
information systems.
Figure 7: Hierarchical Levels of Enterprise.
4.2 Controlling the Enterprise
Essential to any enterprise is that it must be managed
and led (Deming, 2000). Managing the enterprise
refers to management of its internal activities.
However, enterprises themselves can also evolve,
which can take place naturally (by chance) or
deliberately by design (Lee, 2010; Proper, 2013).
Designing the enterprise refers to any activities
related to changing the enterprise for some reason.
This requires that the enterprise can be managed and
As we regard enterprises as systems, they can be
managed by controlling them as any system.
However, if we do not know how the enterprise
operates, the controlling is difficult if not
impossible. This is called the Problem of Black Box
(Ashby, 1957). If we only know the input and output
interfaces of the enterprise, all we can do is to deduce
how the enterprise works by experiment, i.e., by
trying different values for inputs and by monitoring
the resulting outputs. With enough data, one can form
testable hypotheses and learn how the enterprise
works. However, enterprise may have states to which
it can not be returned. These states are called
inaccessible states (Ashby, 1957). For instance, if the
enterprise is a business, it may run out of money and
ICEIS 2017 - 19th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
end up to bankrupt. After that state, the enterprise is
not able to continue its operations, regardless of the
given inputs.
Another management challenge is very large and
complex enterprises, such as, societies. These kind of
enterprises can only be treated statistically (Ashby,
The essential question in controlling the
enterprise is what and how to control? This question
is out-of-scope of this paper and remains to be
answered by future research.
Now that we have introduced and discussed different
concepts of the article, we can put it all together. The
premise of GST is that the empirical world is
essentially a system of systems. There are different
categories of these systems and each category have
their own scientific discipline(s). For instance,
physics study frameworks and their properties,
psychologists humans, and sociologists social
organisations. Most of these scientific disciplines
share three concepts (Boulding, 1956): individual,
population and growth. Naturally, what we mean by
individual depends on the system’s category. For
instance, physics may see an atom as an individual
and a molecule as a population, whereas chemists
may see a molecule as an individual.
In previous section we defined enterprise as a
social organisation (system) which consists of human
beings (systems) and social organisations (systems).
This means that enterprise is also a system of systems.
Let’s return to our definition of enterprise
architecture. We defined EA as (1) a formal
description of the current and future states of an
enterprise, and (2) a managed change between these
states to meet stakeholders’ goals. Next we will
discuss these two definitions using the GST.
5.1 Enterprise Architecture
The first part of our definition is a noun referring to
architecture descriptions. Architecture description
can be defined as a “work product used to express an
architecture” (ISO/IEC/IEEE, 2011, p. 2). As GST
sees empirical world as a system of systems, it
implies that every system, such as an enterprise, can
be described. Moreover, if we can describe a system,
we can also describe systems it consists of, i.e., its
components. As stated earlier, enterprise architecture
descriptions are typically produced for four layers;
business (B), information (I), information systems
(S), and technology (T). These descriptions are
expressing the architecture of the enterprise from
different viewpoints. The B layer expresses a social
organisation: what are roles and processes of the
enterprise. The S and T layers expresses the various
clockworks and thermostats of the enterprise, namely
the information systems and the technology they are
built on. However, the I layer does not express any
system as such. The I layer typically consists of
grammars and dictionaries, i.e., definitions and
meanings of things. Therefore, it can be regarded as
collection of properties or rules of the enterprise
rather than a description of a system.
Architecture descriptions are produced for two
reasons. You either want to understand the enterprise
or you want to change it somehow. Descriptions of
the current state of the enterprise are used to increase
our understanding about the enterprise. In other
words, how the enterprise works, what are its
components, and how these components are linked to
each other. Descriptions of the future state(s) of the
enterprise are plans of how what the enterprise should
be in the future. There can be multiple different
scenarios, i.e., descriptions of different future states,
each expressing one possible solution to achieve
stakeholders’ goals.
5.2 Executing the Managed Change
The second part of our definition of enterprise
architecture is a verb, referring to changing the
enterprise from the current state to the future state.
Because GST allows us to see the enterprise a system,
it also allows us to control the enterprise. An ability
to control the enterprise is a requirement for changing
the enterprise.
To successfully change the enterprise, one must
know both the current and the future state of the
enterprise. The descriptions of the current state
should include details on control mechanisms of the
enterprise and its components. For instance, if we use
a company as an example of the enterprise, the
descriptions should include its management structure
and processes, organisational structure, staff’s skills
and knowledge, and organisation culture. The breadth
and depth of the needed descriptions depends on the
focus and magnitude of the change. The descriptions
of the future state should clearly express the desired
state of the enterprise. Again, the breadth and depth
of the needed descriptions depends on the future state.
The Quest for Underpinning Theory of Enterprise Architecture - General Systems Theory
When the current and future states of the
enterprise are described, one can start to execute the
managed state. The challenge is that enterprises are
systems of systems. Thus, in order to change the
enterprise, we may need also to change its
components (systems). As our definition of enterprise
suggests, enterprise may consists of many different
kinds of systems. These may include social
organisations, such as organisational departments,
humans, and clockworks, such as machines and
computers. Each different system have individual
control mechanism and, therefore, require different
controlling approach. For instance, changing an
organisational culture requires different approach
than changing a computer software.
The purpose of this paper was to strengthen the
scientific foundation of enterprise architecture. We
defined enterprise architecture (EA) as (1) a formal
description of the current and future states of an
enterprise, and (2) a managed change between these
states to meet stakeholders’ goals.
In the quest for the underpinning theory of EA, we
first reviewed the top IS and MS journals and
demonstrated a research gap: EA is lacking a sound
theoretical foundation. Therefore, the paper is
focused to General Systems Theory (GST), a
promising candidate for underpinning theory of EA.
GST allows us to see enterprises as systems of
systems. To be more specific, in Boulding’s
hierarchy, enterprises are social organisations
consisting of social organisations and humans. As
such, one can produce descriptions of enterprise and
its components. As we see enterprises are systems, we
also demonstrated that they can be controlled as any
other system. However, as enterprise consists of
different kind of systems, controlling the enterprise
may require individual controlling of each system it
consists of.
We were looking for a type IV theory to predict
and explain the enterprise architecture. We argue that
GST provides explanation and a sound scientific
foundation for producing architecture descriptions
and executing managed change. However, as the title
of Boulding’s (1956) paper states, GST is the skeleton
of science. In the context of enterprise architecture,
this means that GST gives us only a way to interpret
enterprises as systems from various scientific point of
views. For instance, it does not give us a single theory
to control enterprises, but a way to decompose it to
other systems and to control them individually.
However, we do argue that GST also provides
prediction. For instance, if one is executing managed
change of a company, a social organisation, one can
utilise management and organisation science.
Therefore, we argue that GST can be used as
scientific foundation of enterprise architecture.
6.1 Implications to Science
Enterprise architecture is a multidisciplinary concept.
We demonstrated that enterprises are systems of
systems consisting of social organisations and human
beings. They may also include other systems, such as
machines, computers, and information systems. This
implies that EA is not limited to ICT related matters,
but covers the enterprise as a whole. Therefore, EA
research should be expanded outside of the IS field to
include business, management, and organisation
sciences. Having said that, we also need to remember
that ICT and information systems are essential
components of our society, and their importance is
growing in the future.
6.2 Implications to Practise
A recent discussion on the role of enterprise
architecture implies that currently EA is seen merely
as a practice of producing documentation, leaving
business development with a little of attention
(Bloomberg, 2014). According to Zachman (2015),
this is similar to taking X-ray pictures: they are purely
snap-shots from a certain time. Instead, as Zachman
suggests, enterprise architects should be more like
doctors. They should analyse those X-ray pictures,
make diagnosis and prescribe solutions. From this
point of view, our results may have significant
consequences to EA practitioners. As the scope of EA
expands outside the ICT to cover the business,
practitioners should also expand their skills
6.3 Directions for Future Research
As our literature review revealed, EA is still seen
purely as an IT issue. Utilising GST as the
underpinning theory of EA gives a good starting point
to focus the future research on EA.
First, one could research which system categories
are typical in different enterprises. For instance, does
all enterprises include clockworks or thermostats?
Second, one could research which controlling
approaches does the current literature offer for
different system categories. For instance, which
ICEIS 2017 - 19th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
organisational theories would explain why some
organisations are easiern to change than the others?
Or which psychological or cognitive theories would
explain how to change people?
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ICEIS 2017 - 19th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems