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.

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