PowerPoint and Excel for Architecture Modelling; Why Not?

Whether planning, designing or executing IT change, there are plenty of situations that require discovery and analysis of architecture related information.

Often, when a piece of work is viewed as a one-off exercise (e.g. IT solution architecture design, architecture reviews), we see a prevalence of architecture information captured using any combination of Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, presentation slides and Visio diagrams as project outputs.

In the short term, these formats appear to serve their purpose; they provide a means of capturing architecture elements and relationships for both analysis and communication. But why is it that over time, they ultimately become inefficient and cumbersome when used as a means of retaining architectural knowledge?

What You See is What You Get: If you want a new perspectives on the information captured, then you will usually find yourself drawing another diagram or designing another spreadsheet. Over time, maintaining consistency across these different views of your architecture becomes increasingly difficult.

The Nth Dimension: Here, we’re referring to the challenges associated with capturing complex multidimensional inter-relationships using office productivity tools. Even when armed with the rows, columns, formulas and scripts afforded by a spreadsheet, it would certainly be a non-trivial exercise to map the applications, underlying technology, information exchanged and business processes involved in, for example, an organisations’s global integration architecture?

Manual Meta-Model: Even if you do your best to ensure that common terms are used across your spreadsheets, documents and diagrams, the fact is that these formats lack any meaningful ability to share fine-grained information elements without some form of programming. In other words, it is left up to the project or architecture team to manually enforce a standardised, shared meta-model for consistent semantics. Not a very scalable approach.

Repository-based tools to the rescue then? Well, they are certainly capable of addressing most of the maintainability and scalability issues associated with using office productivity and drawing tools for architecture modelling. However, I still often find myself asking the question:

“Why do even the most experienced architects (with access to sophisticated repository-based tools), fail to resist the temptation to go back to good old PowerPoint, Excel and Visio”

I don’t believe there is a simple answer to this question, but I ‘m pretty sure that beyond familiarity, it is simplicity and ease of use that draws us back to them; characteristics that are not always the first to spring to mind when working with repository tools.