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Sam Lowe's blog on Enterprise IT

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Survival of the loudest?: 'Social' evolution in Enterprise IT

Last year (after a recommendation from Nigel Green) I finally got round to reading Lila by Pirsig (probably better known for his previous book 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'). It contains some great thoughts and insights that, whilst written for a totally different purpose and audience, I found very interesting and relevant to enterprise IT. Particularly to enterprise processes, systems, data and architecture.

Bear with me as we go a bit abstract here ... One of the models that he proposes is that the world as we know it is made up of series of 'systems' constructed one on top of another.

-He identifies the inorganic systems (how atoms, molecules, materials etc work) to be the first.
-Then he identifies the biological systems (how cells, organisms, life etc work) to be next, existing on top of the inorganic systems.
-Then he identifies the social systems (how individuals, groups, cities, cultures etc work) to be next, existing on top of the biological systems.
-Finally he identifies intellectual systems (how ideals, concepts, intellectual values etc work) to be next, existing on top of the social systems.

One of the several things he does with the model above is to point out that whilst evolution is well accepted in the biological level, it is rarely seriously considered at the social and intellectual levels. He proposes that the concept of evolution is just as appropriate in describing the change in the patterns seen in the social systems and the intellectual systems of the world, as it is to the biological ones.

He suggests that the patterns in each level have evolved on top of the patterns in the level below. That they have not been designed to serve the systems in the level above. Therefore he proposes that the social systems (e.g. cultures, cities) have evolved on top of biological patterns (e.g. man). They have not been predetermined to underpin the intellectual patterns (e.g. intellectual ideals). He proposes that social patterns may have been retrospectively formalised to support intellectual values (such as ideals of a culture), but actually the intellectual values themselves evolved from the platform provided by social patterns. In turn, he proposes that intellectual systems have evolved on top of social systems, not vice versa. Clearly, although this is not unintuitive, it challenges certain conventional wisdoms that cultures are the result of the intellectual ideals and cities are the creation of man.

You may wonder why I am describing something so metaphysical on a blog about Enterprise IT, well there is method in my madness. The example he gives about how people often consider cities to be the creation of man, that have been planned out and created as some kind of master plan in the heads of the individuals involved is a very interesting one. Pirsig rejects the idea, describing how his model suggests that actually the city at any point has evolved on top of the biological patterns involved, governed by the value systems involved, and the ways they have interacted. He rejects the idea of grand predetermined design of a complex social system such as a city (although these are my words not his).

Given how often Enterprise Architecture and IT planning are compared to city planning (inc. by me, Todd, & Villas to mention a few recent blog postings alone) it should be interesting to anyone involved in IT strategy or architecture. The equivalent of the concept in the Enterprise IT world could be that an Enterprise IT estate is not the creation of the technologies or the people involved, it does not exist as a result of any master plan, but is a complex system that has evolved as a result of the value systems that have interacted.

The obvious activity for a rational IT chap is to consider what would be the actualisation of Pirsig's models in the enterprise IT world, using an Enterprise Architect, IT planning or Portfolio Management viewpoint. Maybe the inorganic level could be the technology infrastructure, both software and hardware. Maybe the biological level could this be related to systems and data. Maybe the social level could this be the work-practices, policies, and networks/communities. Maybe the intellectual level could be the business objectives, models, and processes.

However rather than get too caught up in debating the potentially academic details of the mappings, I'm more initially interested in some of the dynamics of this model. It's not like the applicability of top-down 'intelligent design' in Enterprise IT has never been questioned before after all, but rather than just practitioner's scepticism, this gives alternative hypotheses to consider.

Of course there's enough material in such a consideration for a book in itself, but one of the dynamics that jumped out at me right away that I thought I'd mention here was that concept of social systems evolving on top of biological ones. If there is an enterprise IT equivalent of the biological level, then I suspect it's comparatively well understood and catered for compared to the social level. I have often been of the opinion that social dynamics and value systems are very badly understood in Enterprise IT, much to its detriment. Management science is better (although far from perfect) at considering the social systems that make up the organisations we work in or work with, but such matters often seem to be almost a complete blind-spot to IT.

The biological evolution of IT systems we can appreciate (although many organisations struggle with managing it), and the intellectual evolution of business models and objectives we can also appreciate (although again many struggle), but the conventional IT concept of 'the users' and the tools of functional requirements, flow-charts, use cases etc always feel like vaguely prehistoric blunt instruments for considering the social systems of an organisation. Extrapolating the concept that social systems 'evolve' on top of biological systems, based on the interaction of the value systems (and which proliferates most effectively) seems to suggest to us that we should have a far better way of describing the different communities, networks, ownerships, motivations, behaviours etc in an organisation around its use of, and opportunity for IT. One might even over-simplistically describe it as the politics around the use of IT.

Of course the re-popularisation of the internet ideals as part of the trend often referred to as Web 2.0 has brought a lot of focus to the ideas of community in consumer-focused IT, including blogs, tagging, wikis, inclusive economics etc, and many varieties of social software. The Enterprise 2.0 initiative of Andrew McAfee and others has brought an interesting perspective to how these technologies could and can be applied into enterprise IT scenarios. But even though these new technologies will very likely be important going forward, the dynamics of the social systems around IT of course apply to all system-types and all technology generations, not just social software. It can't be the preserve of a new generation of enterprise technology alone.

Sidebar: Pirsig also uses some excellent metaphors about academics that are scarily applicable to the IT industry. For example he talks about 'restaurants with 300,000 page menus and no food'. That reminds me of far too much of IT than is healthy. Another that stuck in my mind was his 'highways full of drivers too busy telling each other how to drive to actually get anywhere'. If there is an activity where that applies more than in IT then I'd love to know which? Other than politics itself of course.

BTW: I'd be interested to see what some real Pirsig experts think of this misapplication of MoQ. But please be gentle, I'm conscious that it's not exactly a pure representation...

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  • Grand design v growing organism

    I'm reminded of the words of Christopher Alexander – a couple of quotes:

    “All matter/space has some degree of “self” in it, and this self, or anyway some aspect of the personal, is something which infuses all matter/space and everything we know as matter but now think to be mechanical”.

    “All space and matter, organic or inorganic, has some degree of life in it, and matter/space is more alive or less alive according to its structure and arrangement”

    IMO it's all about striking the balance between the behavioural and mechanistic aspects of an information system and understanding the affect one aspects has upon the other. The point where these two perspectives meet is
    where we might find the insights that are directly relevant to information systems and their associate architectures.

    I've found that starting with the simple belief that an information system always exists within the context of multiple interacting Value Systems seems to make sense and discovering as many facts about those Value Systems and their shared and conflicting values very helpful. Both from the point of view of an architect's fascination with abstraction and, more importantly, as a means to communicate the key outcome affecting dimensions of an information system to anyone interacting with it or otherwise interested in the expected outcomes.

    The Value System landscape of a particular organisation can be perceived as collection of interdependent layers such as
    described by Pirsig (i.e. inorganic, biological, social and intellectual) but within a taxonomy that is relevant to the
    situation and is understood by the interested parties!. An early understanding this landscape embellished with the
    Policies in play, the Events of interest, the Content being exchanged and the Trust relationships formed, help uncover key outcome-affecting tensions and pain-points. This creates the backdrop for a different sort of conversation - one that puts
    emphasis on the needed outcomes and the required adoption rather than the promise of technology alone.
    (See Services Fabric blog)for further thoughts on adoption-focused analysis that applies the Value, Policy, Event Content and Trust.

    I believe that early understanding the tensions and conflicts associated with the interplaying Value Systems highlights
    previously obscured barriers to adoption of an IT solution. The blurring of the behavioural and the mechanistic helps give IS
    architecture a sense of pragmatics and incrementalism that is sometimes lost in a 'grand design'. An outcome of this seems to
    be a greater sense of connectedness with the users and a greater feeling of influence over the nurture, growth and adoption of
    the information system. They become engaged in the journey towards the desired outcomes of the Value System(s) under which they operate.

    This permanent end user involvement in design is not dissimilar to the notion of
    bricolage referred to in Claudi Ciborra's
    The Labyrinths of Information:
    Challenging the Wisdom of Systems

    By Blogger Nigel Green, at 10:02 am  

  • Good Post!

    I would like to state an example for your statement below:
    "Another that stuck in my mind was his 'highways full of drivers too busy telling each other how to drive to actually get anywhere'. If there is an activity where that applies more than in IT then I'd love to know which? "

    Now UML 2 has played a better role in clubbing and standardizing designs. Yet, above example would be applicable to decision of a system that can be designed in '1+n' no. of methodologies, wherein each methodology seems to be the best in giving you the best results. Choosing the right (best) one would be the issue here.


    By Anonymous Zaffe Khan, at 8:46 am  

  • A very interesting article and the link to layered biological systems is a great thought provoker. It leads me to one of my pet topics at the moment - the desire of IT to build the business around the IT landscape that they best understand. This is a classic example of what you describe, whereby the social structure of a business starts to change or reconstruct itself to align to IT. This leads to an environment understood by technologists, but not by others (which the technologists love and everyone else hates). I am a strong advocate that the business should lead and IT should follow. As a person with a strong IT background I KNOW that IT can do whatever is necessary and can do it in a cost effective way if the practitioner is intelligent enough. It is therefore the role of the Enterprise Architect to bend IT to the will of the business rather than the reverse

    The Enterprising Architect

    By Blogger Jon H Ayre, at 10:09 am  

  • I came to this posting late - Nigel Green pointed me here in the middle of the night (at least in the middle of the night, my time) last night. I was daft enough to read it then, but not daft enough to write this comment then!

    However, I do think there is something missing. That something is the round tripness. It is my contention (not encumbered by any facts at this time) that city planning only really evolved once there was a city to plan. So it isn't a question of whether we plan centrally or are emergent in our thinking, but that we are round trip creatures. Emergent behaviour happens, then we get to a point at which there is sufficient (maybe its when the large consulting companies, or power mad politicians get involved) desire to plan and manage it. At that point we get the "planning" model coming into play.
    Many of the enterprises in which enterprise architects find themselves already exist (a tautology, I am sure). So enterprise architects find themselves dealing with the existing organism and all of its conflicting value systems, policies, trust relationships, etc.
    How we go about it is often to "pretend" that we are planning a whole new enterprise. A bit like saying, "London wasn't done right, so let's take it apart, plan it and put it back together."
    That's not an approach that a city planner would take - although as I look at some parts of London, it seemed that overly zealous city planners did just that.
    A good city planner will properly consider the cultural aspects of the city - the narrow lanes, the low skyline, the lack of highways, the neighbourhoods, the little shops, the public transport system - the culture and apply the planning "process" with those things in mind - as well as new uses. The bad city planners ignore the things that make a city a city and look for homogeneity and efficiency. Why not have strip malls everywhere. They are easy to build, easy to get to, easy to repurpose. Oh but they are ugly and don't satisfy the people.
    To hell with the people, what do they know about planning?

    By Blogger Chris Bird, at 1:28 pm  

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