At last: Systems Thinking collides with Enterprise Architecture

As a de-facto Enterprise Architect, a little bit of serendipity  today left me feeling much better with the world.

It’s a fact of life that our modern world is awash with fads, and my working life in IT has been no exception, but the one thing about fads, whether they are  IT, Management or any other fads,  is that they tend to follow a similar sequence of steps each time:

  1. The fad enters the mainstream through the efforts of journalists who tell us why this is the “next great thing”
  2. This is rapidly followed by vendors telling us why they are the supplier of choice in this field
  3. Enter stage left the “Consultants” who have experience to bring the fad to your organisation with all it’s fantastic benefits that no-one can quite understand yet
  4. Our senior leaders then get worried as to why they are missing out on the fad, so commission a piece of work based on it

Worse still, every so often opposing factions appear trying to achieve the same marvellous end accompanied by media excesses telling us why one particular type of the current fad is far better than any of the others. Generally, in amongst the fad-meisters are a small core of pragmatists in the know, who try in vain to explain the truth behind the ballyhoo.

Thankfully, after a little while a new fad appears to displace the old one. Meanwhile the majority of us get on with quietly making whatever the previous fad was actually work, delivering realistic benefits, not the hyped conjecture.

Enterprise Architecture hits the streets promising that IT will deliver massive benefits to our organisations

A few years ago the fad was “Enterprise Architecture”, aka “EA”, and so worried were senior leaders across the land that huge salaries were being offered for posts in the field for anyone who could deliver the massive cost savings & efficiency improvements that the hype-mongers promised were there to be made. Sadly this was one of the fads with various methodologies for delivering Enterprise Architectures that were robustly were debated and considered.

With the arrival of newer fads (ssshhh..if you listen you can hear the sounds of hype-spinners whispering “Big Data” in the breeze), “Enterprise Architecture” disappeared off the senior management radar screens.

But… the essential need for what EA offers:

  • Cost-savings;
  • IT efficiencies; and
  • Closer alignment of IT to business goals

have all grown in corporate importance. Read the splash pages of many of the IT research companies such as Gartner and Forrester, and you will see it writ large: “IT needs to concentrate on becoming an integral part of the corporate goals”

So what happened to “EA”?

Well, it developed & matured.

The differing factions with their ways of doing EA came to uneasy agreements that each group did, indeed, make some good points. Slowly  the different EA methodologies have started to incorporate each other’s better points.

Some of those who were originally in the know, and tried to explain the reality of the situation in the height of the fad storm, have bravely stuck with it. Nick Malik at Microsoft, for example, has ploughed on over the past few years developing & promoting EA. Personally I have found his blog efforts to share knowledge, and latterly his work on modelling business, extremely valuable.

Our understanding of what we want to achieve has improved, and now we see efforts to make “Architecture” pragmatic. My choice of calling it simply “Architecture” is deliberate. We have identified that “Architecture” means different things to different people, and that “Enterprise Architecture” as a super-duper, cover-all is difficult to make work in most cases. We need to follow the business, and help the business and that means doing different things in different situations.

Most of all  we’re rethinking what we need to do as “Architects” in the IT world, whether we’re Enterprise Architects, or more specialised than that. The word “pragmatic” is being used much more often, and there is a growing view that what we need to do is what is necessary to solve the problems that our businesses face, and pretty much no more. We simply have to do it in a smart way keeping at least one eye on the future, and handling the changing world as we do it.

Enter Systems Thinking

My personal path has been to look at Systems Thinking & Systems Practice, as the basis of a management approach, but also as a way of looking differently at the needs of the Enterprise and then delivering against the business goals in a rapidly changing environment. It’s also about listening to people and understanding their viewpoints and what makes then ask for what they want in the way that they do.

It’s this dynamic that brings about a level of complexity, and a need to move more quickly than is expected from the older Enterprise Architecture methodologies. And that’s what I feel the Systems Thinking approach brings through the way that learning is applied continuously as you endeavour to move forward.

There are some Systems Thinking tools that seem built for EA – the Viable Systems Model is an ideal way of representing the organisation in a way that supports mapping architectural components, try looking at Patrick Hoverstadt’s work. Similarly, Soft Systems Methodology provides a way of building knowledge of the unknown with the ability to reverse back through the learning stages if the world changes, or more knowledge is created that needs to be reviewed.

The problem is that I thought I was one of very few people who thought in this way.


So when that bit of serendipity  happened today, the world started looking a rosier place.

It all started with a comment made by a fellow ex-student on the Open University Systems Thinking in Practice course about some smart work being done by IBM in, of all things, health care which happens to overlap with some work I’m doing as part of my day job. In following that up, I spied a reference to a paper in the IBM Systems Journal by Dr B Robertson-Dunn, a former researcher at IBM, about another approach to IT Architecture called Problem Oriented System Architecture as an extension to one of the original EA approaches, the Zachman Framework.

In the paper, Dr Robertson-Dunn describes using cybernetics & control theory to help with architecting solutions by comparing the emerging designs with the organisational goals, whilst keeping within a framework that supports communicating.

This is the first time that I’ve actually encountered the use of Systems Thinking tools being formally defined for use as part of Enterprise Architecture, and it’s the first time I’ve found someone using systems thinking in anger in this area.

The paper has only been published for a month, but at last we have someone bring Systems Thinking into our field and providing a vehicle by which it is being used in a way that shows tangible benefits.

At last, I no longer feel alone in wanting to follow this path


One response to “At last: Systems Thinking collides with Enterprise Architecture

  1. Pingback: Freedom? From Command and Control? | Wouldn't It Be Nice If....

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