Survival of the loudest?: 'Social' evolution in Enterprise IT
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...
Technorati Tags: Enterprise IT Web 2.0 Web_2.0 web-20 Enterprise 2.0 Enterprise Architecture Systems Architecture Information Systems Pirsig Robert Pirsig Lila MOQ