6 years, 2 months ago

The dangers of specialism-trolls in enterprise-architecture

Link: http://weblog.tetradian.com/2014/12/12/specialism-trolls-and-ea/

As cross-domain generalists, how can we best cope with narrow-focus specialists who insist that their own domain is the only one that matters?

This is a constant problem in enterprise-architectures and the like, not least because we somehow have to link across every possible domain in the enterprise – yet the specialists within every single one of those domains will want to believe that their domain alone is ‘the real centre’ of everything that happens.

This came to somewhat of a head in a recent thread on LinkedIn – so much so that, to be frank, it’s probably best if I steer clear of ‘mainstream’ EA for the while. Yeah, that bad… :-(

In essence, this is about the age-old clash between specialist and generalist.

Architecture-disciplines, by definition, must cover the whole of the context, with an emphasis on overall purpose, and how everything connects together to support that purpose. Again by definition, architecture is always going to be somewhat generalist: if there were no conceptually-separate or distinct areas to connect together, there would probably be no need for a distinct generalist discipline of architecture.

The larger the scope, or the greater number of distinct domains that the architecture must connect, the more generalist the architecture discipline becomes. This is not necessarily by intent, but the blunt practical constraint that there’s only so much that one person can know. In the end – especially at the scope of a true ‘architecture of the enterprise‘ – the architect becomes a specialist in being a generalist.

The catch is that this leaves us wide open to attack from every direction by narrow-domain specialists. This is a fundamental element of all architectures, and learning how to deal with it is a fundamental practice for all architects. (However, we need to note that it is never easy to deal with…)

A generalist knows a little about a lot of things, and, crucially, how to connect them together. Good generalists are well aware that they are actually quite small fish in what is often a very big pond.

A specialist knows a lot about a single often very-little thing. Good specialists can be quite big fish, though only in a relative sense within their own often quite small pond.

The problem with specialists is that they are prone to the grandiose belief that their small pond is ‘the only’ pond. A specialist becomes a specialism-troll whenever they become lost in their own grandiosity, and insistent that their small pond is the only pond that matters, that what they believe as ‘the truth’ in the context of that small pond is ‘the only possible truth’ that must apply everywhere.

As architects, we know that, most of the time, that specialist’s own small pond is likely all but irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. But the specialism-troll doesn’t know that – in fact not only has a huge disincentive against knowing that, but has no means to know that, because they filter all information in terms of the small pond.

That’s also why we can’t ‘win’ in any argument with such a specialism-troll: we can only argue within the tiny subset of the context that they’ll accept – about which, of course, they’ll know better than us, because they’re a specialist in that domain. When they come out with demands to ‘Prove it!’ and suchlike, the only sane thing we can do – exactly as with ‘ordinary’ trolls – is to walk away, otherwise we feed even further their delusions of grandiosity and (self)-importance.

With ordinary trolls, we know that they have nothing useful to say anyway, and the only viable tactic is to ignore them. That point is well-known.

But with specialism-trolls it’s more difficult. They are in a valid sub-domain of the architectural context, which means that occasionally (if sometimes only very occasionally…) what they have to say is indeed relevant, and we need to acknowledge that. The hard part, as we all know, is to get them to shut up again afterwards… :-(

In EA right now the most common specialism-trolls are the IT-obsessives, but unfortunately they’re not the only ones. In that specific LinkedIn thread, for example, we’d wasted well over a third of that thread, and probably half of its overall content, solely in dealing with one specialism-troll’s obsessive grandiosity about his own tiny specialism…

As a generalist discipline, we do need urgently to get better at dealing with specialism-trolls.

To illustrate the point, I’ll give three examples of specialism-trolls whose LinkedIn antics I’ve previously written about on this blog. To avoid being accused of ‘name-calling’ and suchlike, I’d probably best describe them as X, Y and Z:

– Specialism-troll X is at perhaps at the more extreme end of EA’s all-too-common IT-obsessives: I wrote about one of the more bizarre interactions with him in the post ‘Why enterprise-architecture must be broader than just IT‘. I also wrote about specialism-troll term-hijacks and the dangers of ‘anything-centrism’ posts ‘How IT-centrism creeps into enterprise-architecture‘ and ‘IT-centrism, business-centrism and business-architecture‘. We need to note, though, the crucial distinction between attempts for a specialism to dominate an architecture, versus valid usage of and focus on a specialism within an architecture: I wrote about that in the post ‘IT-oriented versus IT-centric‘.

– Specialism-troll Y is another variant on a theme of IT-obsessive, though his main driver appears more to be about protecting his position as an ‘enterprise-architecture’ trainer. I wrote about some of the interactions with him in the posts ‘“The history of enterprise-architecture proves…”‘ and ‘The dilution of enterprise-architecture‘.

– Specialism-troll Z is what we might call a business-obsessive, endlessly treating us to his supposedly-erudite knowledge of classical-economics as it purportedly applies to all enterprise-architectures. What makes it clear that this is actually specialism-trolling is that he insists that the term ‘enterprise’ should apply only to a very small subset of large for-profit organisations – which leads us to his nominally-logical conclusion that the only possible purpose for enterprise architecture is about maximising short-term financial profit for shareholders; the fact that equivalent architectural concerns apply in every other type of context – most of them not concerned with short-term financial profit – is crassly ignored as ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’. What’s become clear is that in the past he’s been quite a big fish in his own quite small EA pond: and hence, in effect, he’s attempting to protect that status by trying very hard to prevent the discipline from (necessarily) expanding outward beyond that tiny subset. The reality, though, is that in EA we have no real choice but to move beyond such arbitrary monetarist-assumptions: I’d explained the reasons behind this here in posts such as ‘Values-architecture 101‘ and ‘Why ‘Economics 101′ is bad for enterprise-architecture‘ (though Z himself wasn’t involved in either of those two discussions). Like all specialism-trolls, Z does have some potentially-useful knowledge: but for the most part, bluntly, he’s just a darn nuisance…

Somewhen on LinkedIn (I think?) the indefatigable Len Fehskens perfectly described the real source of this particular problem for EA, in a comment I’d paraphrase as “the trailing-edge of EA is a long way behind its current leading-edge – and those two edges are rapidly moving further and further apart”. People like X, Y and Z each have a very large vested-interest in holding EA back to where it was a few years ago, when they and others like them could purport to be ‘the big-fish’ in their own small ponds. What they’re doing now, though, with their term-hijacks and specialism-trolling and the like, is actively holding us back – which definitely doesn’t help anyone at all… If we’re going to cut down on the waste of effort expended on EA’s specialism-trolls, we need to identify those behaviours, call them out, and call a halt to them, so that we are then able to move forward at the speed that this discipline now needs.

Although it’s probable that all of us are at risk at some point of inadvertently playing ‘specialism-troll’, there are several key characteristics in the behaviours of the more persistent offenders:

  • they repeatedly drag any discussion off-topic onto their own narrow specialism
  • they demand that everyone else interpret the entire context solely in terms of that narrow specialism (of which they often claim to be ‘the great authority’)
  • they actively belittle anyone who either challenges the off-topic move and/or the purported centrality of that specialism
  • they never admit being wrong about anything
  • they learn precisely nothing
  • they never change

Take just one look the behaviours of people like X, Y and Z, and you’ll see that they fit exactly to all of those characteristics. We therefore have a diagnostic, right there:

  • if someone repeatedly pulls a discussion off-topic towards a narrow specialism, they’re probably a specialism-troll
  • if someone repeatedly insists that their own narrow specialism is ‘the centre’ of a generalist discipline such as EA, they’re probably a specialism-troll
  • if they keep repeating the same assertions, regardless of whatever points others have made, they’re probably a specialism-troll
  • if they keep pulling the discussion back, forcing others to go over and over the same ground for the purpose of preventing development and change, they’re probably a specialism-troll

If the purpose of a thread is to emphasise a specialism, that behaviour is perhaps not so serious a problem. But if the purpose is to develop onward, a specialism-troll is an active disaster, and in many cases must be removed if the thread has any chance of success.

The LinkedIn behaviour of those three examples above – X, Y and Z – has for years now exactly matched all of those criteria. Although on some few occasions they do have some few useful points to say – as per any specialist – they also need to kept be under strict management, or they will disrupt every thread. As X, Y and Z each have done with every thread in which they’d turned up. Which is precisely why so many LinkedIn discussions end up being so darn futile: it only takes one specialism-troll to bring the whole thread to a grinding halt. Yet since so many people don’t seem to realise what’s actually going on, they blame LinkedIn itself – which kinda misses the real point.

Too often, though, what happens when we call attention to that behaviour is that we get blamed for the the specialism-troll’s behaviours. Which is exactly what happened to me in that particular thread. Not impressed; in fact still deeply furious, and feeling utterly betrayed…

Hence, perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m in a space where I’ve pretty much given up on trying to deal with mainstream EA. It’s just too hard, frankly: a vast expenditure for no meaningful result.


Someone wrote to me, shortly after that debacle, and said that the members of that LinkedIn group “will be conscious of the significant loss of contribution of which we have all been the beneficiaries in the time that you have been part of the discussions”. No doubt well-meant, and maybe even true – but right now it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way. For me it’s pretty much all been one-way: years of friggin’ hard work on my side, all of it given away ‘for free’, in the hope that those ideas and tools could be genuinely useful in the wider world; yet little more than relentless denigration and snide attacks coming back from every direction. To use the old Roman phrase, ‘the game isn’t worth the candle’. It’s been an intense mental and spiritual struggle, every inch of the way; yet no-one seems to give much of a sh_t about it – other than to give me yet further hell to cope with. And it’s not even financially worthwhile putting up with all of that pain: it’s all futures-work, and, as I know to my all-too-literal cost, the nature of futures-work is that it’s exactly where the money isn’t:

So why bother any more?

Seriously: why should I bother? Any good reasons at all?

What this mess has illustrated for me is that, in reality, I’m not even on the leading-edge of enterprise-architecture any more: to be utterly blunt, the kind of contexts I’m working on at present are probably at least a decade or more ahead of where even the nominal ‘leading edge’ of current EA is right now. That’s why I don’t fit here; yet also why it’s perhaps not so wise that all too many people in EA seem to be having all too much, uh, ‘fun’, in relentlessly mocking and deriding me as some kind of off-his-head nutcase – despite my now solidly-proven track-record on pathfinding for the futures of EA. Putting up with that kind of crap, day after day, year after year? – yeah, it gets kinda wearing after a while… kinda old, y’know…?

It’s true that the ongoing mess of EA has been a useful test-bed for many of my ideas and tools, I’d have to agree with that. But trying to sort it all out, when most people don’t even want to hear what I’m showing about the broader scope? And in the midst of endless attacks from all sides – even from some of the nominal leaders of EA, let alone its all-too-many stuck-in-the-mud specialism-trolls? Well, it all feels like it’s become not just a debilitating drain on what little energy I have, but all too literally just a waste of my time. And at my age I really don’t have any time to waste – not any more…

If you want an analogy, try Flatland. To be blunt, most of those specialism-trolls are barely out of Pointland; the IT-obsessives are still very much stuck in Lineland; the best of mainstream ‘EA’ is still very much Flatland, though the leading edge of current EA is perhaps getting closer to the world of the narrator of Flatland, just starting the struggle to make sense of the Sphere. In the meantime, yeah, I too am just another Flatlander, no-one in any way ‘special’, I’m acutely aware of that: yet one who’s trying to build tools to make sense of a tesseract, a truly n-dimensional space, where ‘n’ can be any number at all – and for the world that we’re actually in, ‘n’ is turning out to be a very big number indeed… Hence I really can’t afford to waste any time on Pointlander-idiots like EA’s specialism-trolls; and it’s now come to where I probably shouldn’t be paying much attention any more to EA’s Flatland, even though that’s where I came from and where I’m still largely forced to live.

What interests me is a literal ‘architecture of the enterprise’, at a truly global scale. Maybe time, then, for me to walk away from the EA mess, and move on to somewhere else where I have somewhat more chance of being of real use. In any case, in the seemingly-unlikely event that anyone in EA actually wants what I do, you know where to find me. Over to you on that, if you wish.

About all that needs to be said right now, really.