Enterprises as social systems

This is one of a number of articles from my series on LinkedIn Pulse where I elaborate on a principle which I outlined in enterprise architecture principles. The original article was a first draft, and I fully expect that some of these principles will need to be revised and/or refined. Elaborating on the principle here should help in the process of testing the degree of shared understanding, relevance and practice amongst enterprise architects and contribute to establishing well expressed and strong principles, acknowledged as fundamental to the practice of enterprise architecture.

The following outlines the original draft of the principle.

Enterprises are commonly socio-technical systems


  • The vast majority of enterprises use a range of technical systems / technology to enable them to more cost-effectively deliver their products / services
  • The operation of socio-technical systems constitutes a mixed operation of social and deterministic systems


  • Architecture and design activities must be clear as to the system-of-interest being architected / designed
  • Determination of the boundary between social and deterministic systems requires consideration of:
    • the degree of autonomy / control required
    • the degree of flexibility / certainty
    • the nature of the solution as technical / adaptive
    • Determination and expression of scope in terms of the social system not the deterministic system

This article will explore the background to the formulation and inclusion of this principle. One of the potential outcomes is that a strong view emerges that this “principle” should be classified as a foundation concept, rather than a principle. Either way, it is an important underpinning to the mode of thinking required of successful architects of enterprises.


There are a number of definitions that need to be outlined in order for readers to clearly understand the intended meaning of particular expressions in this discussion.

  • Purposeful entity – being able to change both means and ends in different environments
  • Social system – being a purposeful system composed of purposeful parts
  • Deterministic system – being a non-purposeful system composed of non-purposeful parts
  • Socio-technical system – being a social system which makes use of technology / technical systems, thereby being a purposeful system composed of purposeful and non-purposeful parts

For further elaboration on these definitions, see the article – Enterprises as systems

Background and rationale

One of the drivers for including this principle is my experience that there are different architectural thinking habits and practices applicable to different types of systems. That is, we cannot afford to assume that all the architectural practices which we apply to deterministic systems are appropriate to social or socio-technical systems.

Social systems are dynamic systems. Their design and management requires non-linear thinking. They also require a different mode of engagement as a social system is able to architect, design and organise itself – something that a deterministic (or mechanistic) system cannot do. Hence, the need for different approaches.

Another driver for inclusion and exploration of this principle is that it seems that the nature of socio-technical systems is the basis of significant difficulties in relation to their design and realisation. This arises most often when the design of the technical system is not integrated with the design of the social system, and where the tail (technical system) ends up wagging the dog (social system).

Exploring the implications

The primary implication in an architectural context is to be clear about the system-of-interest being architected – as to whether the system is:

  • A technical system
  • A social system using one or more technical systems

There are a number of approaches which are used to ensure the distinction is understood, covering different parts of the development cycle, including separating:

  • business architecture descriptions from technical architecture descriptions
  • business capabilities and technical capabilities and their dependencies
  • business objectives, information system objectives, and technology system objectives
  • business scope, information system scope and technology system scope

An example of this separation is shown in the following diagram.

Another implication is the necessity to clearly determine the boundary between social and technical systems. This requires consideration of:

  • the degree of autonomy / control required
  • the degree of flexibility / certainty
  • the nature of the solution as technical / adaptive

Technical systems enable enterprises to apply control and to achieve consistency and certainty within known parameters. Social systems deal much more effectively with variety through provision of appropriate autonomy, with flexibility and adaptive responses.

Given that people have the capacity to choose between changing means or ends, it is important that scope is expressed in relation to the social system such that the ends are defined. If the scope is expressed in technical system terms, the social system will have flexibility to vary scope as it has the capacity to explore different ends, even when the means (technical system) is constrained.

Some alternative perspectives

In seeking to architect socio-technical systems, there are a number of challenges arising from the inter-relationship and inter-dependency between the social system and the technical system(s). The following are two different ways of exploring the technical system and its relationship to the social system.

Technical systems as prosthetics

One way to consider the technical system is to consider it as a “prosthetic” for use of people, whether they be external people (such as customers or suppliers) or internal people (employees).

The technical system exists to support nominated business processes and business functions. The use of the prosthetic will enable the person to take actions that would otherwise be:

  • too slow
  • too difficult
  • too expensive
  • impossible

The prosthetic operates to enable the user of the prosthetic to:

  • access required information
  • generate and share required information with others
  • undertake a process in a consistent manner

Where additional capabilities become possible, then there is an opportunity to change and improve what the user does. At the end of the day, though, the business objectives and outcomes fall with the user of the prosthetic, not the prosthetic itself.

Technical systems as workspace

Another way to look at technical systems is to consider them as providing and enhancing the workspace for the relevant people using and occupying the workspace.

The people are able to operate in the available “information and process space”, deciding for themselves what facilities to use and take advantage of, and where the information and tools will enable them to more effectively fulfill their responsibilities and achieve their overall business objectives.

There are interesting parallels with other architectural domains. We tend to think of an architect designing the building structures, forgetting that the structures define the spaces in which occupants will have a particular experience. When designing technical systems, there is significant value in giving consideration to the workspace experience that is being envisaged in designing and building the system.

Each of these two scenarios – prosthetics and workspace – place the technical system in its appropriate context – as a means to an end that may be determined dynamically by the user, based on the particular conditions existing at the time.


All that said – I need to find a simpler way to express this principle.

Comments and feedback welcome!!

Further reading:

  • Soft Systems Methodology in Action – Peter Checkland
  • Thinking in Systems – Donella Meadows
  • The Fifth Discipline – Peter Senge
  • Beyond Alignment – John Gotze

Enterprises as systems

This is part of a series on LinkedIn Pulse about Enterprise Architecture – plain and simple which I am progressively migrating to this site.  In exploring what is encompassed within the description of an architecture, I referenced the conceptual framework provided by ISO 42010 – Architecture Description which includes:

  • An architecture description expresses an architecture
  • A system exhibits an architecture

Enterprise architecture is predicated on the notion of an enterprise being viewed as a system (which exhibits an architecture). This posting explores some of the implications of viewing an enterprise as a system. It is my view that this is an important foundation stone for enterprise architecture, and that there are significant opportunities for enterprise improvement simply through better understanding systems and system principles, without the necessity to understand or change the structure and architecture of an enterprise.

There are a wide range of views in relation to systems and extensive writings and analysis of this topic. I do not pretend to be an expert in this area or to have read widely on the topic. Our understanding of the concept of system is critical to our view of:

  • the architecture exhibited by a system
  • the approaches available or required to change a system
  • the elements to consider and reflect in our architecture descriptions
  • the nature and scope of enterprise architecture

In my view, the following are key factors in some of the differing perspectives on enterprise architecture.

  • Enterprises are social systems, with most being socio-technical systems
  • Enterprises are systems of systems
  • Systems are intrinsically tied to our mental models and our use of language

My “systems architecture” journey over the last forty years started in the world of operations research as it was applied to improving policing systems. This included being part of a multi-disciplinary group with sociologists, psychologists, demographers, criminologists, statisticians, mathematicians and computing specialists. It included measuring behaviours and modeling systems to inform options for changing systems. In particular, it was an introduction to dynamic systems and their use of mechanistic systems.

During the middle years, my time was spent with designing information systems and IT systems, and acting as a facilitator to help business people understand IT systems and IT people to understand business systems and enterprises. In more recent years, I have started exploring fields such as systems thinking to broaden my understanding and ability to change socio-technical systems more effectively and successfully. This has included reading:

  • Thinking about Systems – Donnella Meadows
  • The Fifth Discipline – Peter Senge
  • The Fractal Organisation – Patrick Hoverstadt
  • Recreating the Corporation – Russell Ackoff
  • Beyond Alignment – Applying Systems Thinking in Architecting Enterprises – John Gotze (editor)

Social and socio-technical systems

I have found the definitions of systems provided by Russell Ackoff to be helpful. (If you want to appreciate how many different definitions there are of systems, then you may wish to refer to the Encyclopaedia on Systems and Cybernetics under S and view items 3322 to 3421)

Ackoff also provides a classification of systems with respect to whether the parts or whole are purposeful, where a purposeful entity is one which has the capacity to change both ends and means in differing environments (ie. it is more than simply having a purpose). This results in the following system classes:

For me, this was quite helpful in appreciating the differences between deterministic systems (in which I have had significant involvement through information systems and IT systems) and social systems. The former are designed and architected by people but do not have people as elements. Whereas the latter are composed of people, and therefore are self-architecting, self-designing, self-organising. This has significant implications for the architecture as it can be changed by any member of the social system.

Socio-technical systems then brings together the notion of social systems (enterprises) and their use of technical systems, being a wide ranging form of machines and technologies, leading into the space of empowering enterprises to realise their goals and aspirations through effective use of technologies, and ICT (information and communication technologies) in particular.

Systems of systems

Another feature of enterprises is that they are systems of systems. I wonder whether there is a tendency to think of this as a hierarchical structure where there is a progressive breakdown of the enterprise into sub-systems, sub-sub-systems, etc, whereas I am conscious that there are a range of overlaying systems, possibly viewed as a mixture of horizontal and vertical systems, but perhaps more appropriately seen as a network of systems and their subsystems.

If nothing else, this warrants careful attention to the “system of interest” in this complex web of systems, such that our discussion and exploration of the exhibited or intended architectures are related to a common entity of interest. Much confusion and debate arises through our different assumptions and perspectives on the nature and focus of the system, and requires us to provide visual aids, examples and supporting narrative to establish common understanding (whether that be amongst different members of an enterprise or amongst EA professionals).

The feature of systems of systems also gives rise to the fractal nature of the models that we develop to better understand the systems of which we are part and which we seek to change and improve.

Systems, models and language

Our understanding, communication and collaboration to give effect to enterprises and to change them to better realise the goals and aspirations we hold for them draws upon the models we develop to reflect these systems. This, in turn, draws upon our own mental models and our use of language as a key means for the way in which we think and communicate about our enterprise.

One line of thinking from the field of systems thinking holds that systems exist only in our minds. Adopting this as a principle which underpins enterprises and their architectures has offered me helpful new perspectives and insights into the challenges of effecting change in enterprises. A range of experiences reinforce the value of this principle and the way in which it “makes sense to me”.

One aspect of this dimension of enterprises is reflected in my characterisation of one of the roles that I perform as being an “enterprise babelfish”. This role is one in which attention is given to the different terms and language used by those within the enterprise to speak and describe their enterprise, and to be able to differentiate and distinguish the different meanings being applied to these terms. By helping enterprises to better understand the different ways in which members conceive of their enterprise, it is possible to develop a clearer, shared understanding which enables members to engage and collaborate more effectively.

The way in which an enterprise thinks and speaks of itself / themselves is an important dimension in developing descriptions of the current, transition or intended architectures of the enterprise. This falls into the realm of enterprise ontology (although that is not an expression I use in conversation with clients!!).

As you might expect, much more could be (and probably will be) said on each of these topics.

IT systems are a means not an end

Many business transformation and business improvement initiatives entail the use of supporting IT system(s). Often these initiatives are described, scoped, designed and delivered as IT projects. As a result, the primary focus becomes the scope, requirements, design, construction and adoption of the IT system. In so doing, these projects often fail to give sufficient attention to the broader “business system” which equally needs to be designed and delivered if the proposed IT system is to be effectively used and if the goals and outcomes sought from the use of the IT system are to be successfully realised.

Business-IT-systemsIn these circumstances, the business analysis that is undertaken:

  • defines the scope around the IT system (which constitutes the means) rather than around the business system (which constitutes and realises the ends)
  • fails to give sufficient attention to the “containing” business system within which the IT system is intended to be used
  • addresses the hard system (IT system) with insufficient attention and inappropriate skills and tools for attending to the soft system (business system)
  • encounters difficulties in evaluating variations in scope as it is the business system which provides the context for evaluating the value to be derived from the proposed use of IT functionality

These deficiencies can be redressed by taking a systems thinking based approach to business analysis. Such an approach will bring benefits through:

  • giving consideration to the system-of-systems constituting the enterprise which is the focus of the improvement / transformation initiative
  • applying a soft systems methodology which takes account of the differing system views that stakeholders may hold and enables the building of a shared conception of the enterprise in which they are engaged
  • giving attention to distinguishing between the sophisticated model that the IT system and information system will sustain and the real world context that it represents (thereby avoiding the common problem of confusing the map with the territory)
  • giving recognition to the IT system and information system being a “part” of the broader “whole” where the outcomes derived from the “system-whole” are distinguished from the outputs of the “system-part” which may not be given sufficient account in various analysis and project methodologies

Each of these will be explored in more detail in subsequent posts.


Quality of business analysis?

It seems (to me) that many enterprises are facing difficulties in successfully planning and conducting business transformation and improvement initiatives due to the poor quality or even absence of fundamental inputs that good business analysis provides into the scoping, designing, developing and adopting of changes intended to improve the performance of these enterprises.

This prompts a range of questions:

  • Is this perception well founded?
  • If so, why is this occurring?
  • What can  be done about this?
  • If there are options, which are likely to be most effective?
  • How do we get started?
  • Who do we need to involve?
  • How do we measure progress or success?

I plan to explore some of these questions, but I am also interested in others’ perceptions:

  • Does this match with your observations and impressions?
  • Are there other related issues which need to be considered?
  • Are there other questions which should be asked?
  • What do you see as the critical elements to making a discernible difference?

I look forward to exploring this question further.