Many organizations are looking for ways to improve business agility and innovation enabled by information technology. Moreover, they are concerned about the increasing Cyber Threat, to core business systems, that comes with new technologies.
The challenge for the CIO and his/her team is to find a way to strike a balance that preserves the integrity of ‘mission-critical’ systems, but at the same time, allows for agility, flexibility and creates the conditions for business process innovation. In short, they need to create an ecosystem that, on one hand, provides an environment that is inherently adaptive, one that allows for emergent behavior, and on the other, protects the business operation. Such an ecosystem is described in the latest book from Jason Bloomberg: “The Agile Architecture Revolution“. In it, he refers to concepts from Complexity Science and suggests that organizations are best understood as a Complex System of both technology and people. The System of the Organization is, in fact, a System-of-Systems which interact to deliver business outcomes in the form of products or services.
An analogy with a commercial aircraft as a ‘Complex System’ or ‘System-of-Systems’: the many sub-systems, each have a well-defined purpose and expected outcome, and together, work in concert to deliver a safe and commercially competitive experience to the passengers. However, one sub-system can have very different core characteristics from another. It is clear, for example, that a core characteristic of the undercarriage with be strength – it is therefore a ‘Robust System’, a system that is design to be ‘Fail-Safe’. In contrast, the defining characteristic of the wing will be it’s ability to flex (else it would snap off!), hence the wing is a “Resilient System’, but it is also designed to be ‘Fail-Safe’. Contrast, those two sub-systems with the ‘Seating-and-Entertainment’ system: an important feature of this system is the ability to change it quickly to keep up with competitive in-flight experience demands and allow for re-configurability of the cabin space.
The need for ‘Business Agility’ in this area was demonstrated, when Cathay Pacific introduced new seats in the economy class cabin. They received overwhelming feedback that their new seats were uncomfortable and many passengers complained of back problems after long-haul flights. Passengers started to vote with their feet. While this was clearly and expensive lesson in ‘User Experience’ testing, commercial disaster was averted by their ability to react quickly. This was only possible because the sub-system in question had been specifically designed to be easily swapped-out – it is an inherently agile system that can be described as having a ‘Safe-Fail’ quality.
Going back to the organization as a Complex System, identifying the fundamental characteristics of the sub-systems of people interacting with technology within an organization is critical to understanding how the correct balance of agility, robustness and resilience is achieved across the whole the enterprise. As has been said many times before, one-size-doesn’t-fit-all! (i.e. we’re an ‘SAP shop’ so let’s use their products wall-to-wall!). Understanding that starts with knowing the outcomes to be delivered by each sub-system and how they work together to deliver safe, secure, and at the same time, flexible systems.. In the context of Business-Technology, this understanding can only be gained through insightful and informed, whole-business design, that understands the behavior of the business as a combination of people, process and technology. This, in my opinion, should be a primary focus of Enterprise Architecture. Critical design patterns are often overlooked when the notion of Analysis and Design is limited to project-led solutions, that at best, describe the desired features and functions of a narrow ‘User’ community. This has not been helped by the IT industry’s constant ability to misappropriate such terms as Agility, Service Orientation and spin-off into, often faddish, ill defined concepts like Cloud computing and BYOD.
Like Mr. Bloomberg, I believe it’s now time to re-think what a Business-Technology Architecture needs to deliver. Many of the original concepts of the thought-leaders in Enterprise Architecture are still very relevant – Jason makes that point the the original idea behind SOA (Component-Based Architecture) are even more relevant today and he airs his frustration with IT software vendors’ re-badging of middleware as ‘SOA’ – all but destroying the original concept. There are many other examples. However, he and are are not alone in our belief that understanding organization as a ‘Complex System’ is vital today. Others like Tom Graves, Richard Veryard, Chris Bird, Darrach Ennis, Simon Wardley and Sally Bean have been banging this drum for many years!
This is a big subject and I recognize that this is a very ‘What’ rather than ‘How’ focused post. I’d be happy to take the discussion further and share ideas on how I’m starting to make-sense of the Business-Technology challenges I’m facing in my day-job – ranging from core SCADA
systems to Consumer-led IT and the ‘Cloud’. As always, I’d be delighted to hear your views, builds and challenges to this post!
A much earlier related post here
This discussion continues here
based on comments below.