Tag Archives: Learning

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

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Was the Terminator so wrong after all?

I get called all sorts of things by friends; colleagues; fellow OU students etc, but a common description I get applied to me is “random“. Personally I prefer to think of it not so much as “being random”, as more making connections between things that I come across. It’s just that sometimes I don’t make all of the connections explicit which is why some of my thoughts may be hard to follow.

Anyway, I saw something recently that, for me, clicked into place and frankly worried me a lot. So, below is my attempt to bring to bear the connections and hopefully elaborate on what concerned me so much. Here goes…

Thought # 1

I must start by admitting to having made a bit of a mistake. For several years I have disregarded friends & relatives who have, to my mind, been overzealous in their protestations that social networking is insecure and betrays their privacy. My argument has been that if you (a) want to be an early adopter, and (b) are happy anyway to share whatever you share on these sites, then you have only yourself to blame if your privacy is breached.

Over time, Facebook, Twitter et al, have all moved from being something that was the preserve of our young children to being pervasive. As I drive to work in the morning I pass advertisment hordings which include Twitter & Facebook monikers, the BBC news reporters proudly have their Twitter names displayed. Familiarity has made these things acceptable to us all, and now we all entrust our thoughts, photographs and comments to them with impunity.

Thought # 2

From time to time I read about more developments from Intel (other CPU manufacturers are available!) about the research efforts to squeeze multiple CPU cores onto a wafer & deploy them to get higher & higher levels of compute power. The efforts, called Intel Tera-Scale are steadily making progress. Parallel computing is nothing new, I wrote a research paper as an undergraduate back in 1981 on methods for parallel computing, but then it was all in the domain of the large corporations and academic research. Now you can watch videos of Intel researchers doing mundane things with 80-core processors: porting Linux, running graphical networking tools. How long will it be before I upgrade my PC to a 64-core I wonder.

Thought # 3

A piece in SmartPlanet called Meet your new boss: a machine. In essence a Gartner Analyst called Nigel Rayner was making some rather off-the-wall claims. Now I’ve met Nigel a couple of times, and he’s a good guy, so his claims are more to provoke thoughts but he’s saying that we’re now developing decision rule capabilities in software that allow us to take multiple inputs, crash them together and evaluate complex rules about them so that the software can take very complex decisions quickly. [Notice I say “take” not “make” – the rules are still followed automatically, so we’re not at SkyNet yet]

The problem is that the software needs a mass of compute power, which many years ago (when I was an undergraduate writing my paper) would have been multimillion dollar stuff. Nigel’s view is that we’re making hardware cheaper and commoditising the parallel processing software which is starting to put this sort of complex decision-making not only into the realm of the possible, but also into the realm of the affordable.

First “Ahhh” Moment

But our friends at Intel research (and frankly other places too) are developing multiprocessor silicon and parallel processing software to drive into the commodity market. It’s now not whimsy to ask “When can I have a 64/128/256-core PC?”. This stuff is coming and we’re seeing the large software companies working on applications around complex business rules.

Thought # 4

There is a new trend which I’m finding disturbing. Today I was looking at an innocuous web site, the San Jose Mercury News tech pages (yes, laugh a minute stuff but very useful in my line of work) when I noticed that it had pulled through my Facebook details, inviting me to like the page. My concern was that I was at work, on a PC that I only use on Facebook very occasionally, yet SJMN had found the necessary on my PC, & then read my Facebook profile. Thank goodness it hadn’t found my LinkedIn profile.

The “Arghhh” Moment

But what if it had? What if the SJMN, or any other online journal, decided to look at my LinkedIn connections, and the article I was looking at and then automatically sent them a link to it on the grounds that if I was interested, then they might be?

Or what if it had checked the connections for a certain demographic, and then intelligently forwarded to my contacts it felt were worthy of the content, creating a set of “cyber haves” and “cyber have-nots”.

How about it isn’t a media site but a product company? And the product company is automatically trawling my social network to see who I know that would be useful for them to approach based on decisions, from a complex rules engine based on commoditised multi-cpu processors that are now available.

Or better still, how about it measures how influential I am from how well I am connected and then uses some complex business rules, again enacted via some large multi-core parallel processing to decide how worthy I am of seeing the site content? Now I’m becoming the one categorised as “cyber-worthy” or “cyber unworthy”.

To be honest, I’m still not too worried about this until I get to the last point. Some of that capability will be with us soon and some, as Nigel Rayner says, will take longer. In one sense, I’m not too fazed by this march of progress, as long as the machines aren’t “thinking” then there are benefits to be had.

What scares the wits out of me is the social change that this brings about. I’m already modifying my behaviour around software. I used to turn on the TV or radio and they came on immediately, but now in the digital world they need time to boot up and initialise. I now know not to press buttons on the remote control until the TV has had time to initialise the various functions, my behaviour is influenced by the software in the TV.

But if I get into the wider implications of software making decisions based around my long-term online lifestyle, then I’m going to start modifying how I work with social networking etc so that I change my ratings. And furthermore the few who stay away from this stuff will rapidly be penalised.

We already have skills based accreditations around technicla products. I can be a very clever CISCO implementer with a vast experience, but if I haven’t passed the exams then my value on the jobs market is reduced. What we are potentially talking about here is that my value could also be reduced if I don’t know, or worse still don’t have recommendations from, the right people.

So, the social network privacy issues become more important as we go forward. I can’t afford to be public, but soon I could end up not being able to afford not to be. I’m not convinced it’s a good thing….

Should System Design be Systemic?

After six months tomorrow is the day I finish my first, and almost last, OU module. I’ve just completed TU812, Managing systemic change: inquiry, action and interaction and I wait to see if I’ve done enough to get a pass. To be fair it’s been a baptism of fire for me: first module with the OU; first time the OU have run this course; and trying to get the measure of being a postgraduate again.

If anyone has arrived at this page having searched on “TU812” then I’d advise you go carefully. It’s a very conceptual course, and as a technologist I found it hard to get to grips with the sort of stuff that sociologists do in their sleep…but then by writing this my tutor would tell me I am being reflective. General consensus of opinion was that if you come to TU812 with a few other courses under your belt from the systems stream then you’ll be ok, but a few of us newbies will be getting together starting on Thursday on the precursor course, TU811, Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change so we all (hopefully) survived.

A colleague asked me if I felt I had actually learned anything, and on reflection I feel that I have. Before starting the course I had this feeling about things being interconnected but couldn’t quite get it all sorted out in my head. Now I feel that it’s fine to feel this, and that there are ways of looking at the complexity in the world and starting to make sense of it all in order to change it.

The trouble is that you start using this everywhere, and it came home to me on a project I’m working on in my day job. We’re trying to put together a large software solution (yes, that sort of “system”) made up of several components. We have a couple of software suites on offer at the core, and then we need to add a few ancillary packages around the outside and hook it all together with middleware. Piece of duff, should get it done by a week on Friday.

The trouble is that the two software suites at the core have very different backgrounds. Both have been built by their respective owning companies through acquiring products and then integrating them together. One is quite overt about the heritage of the core modules, and is trying to architect a neat solution to bringing them together in a pretty uniform way (well as uniform as it can be).

The other offering has been built more covertly, and has kept not only the application functionality but a lot of the other ways of working too. The problem we’re having in trying to set the core design principles is that using this suite means there is more than one way of doing everything, quite often a lot more than one way. Furthermore, then isn’t anything that is consistent over the whole suite, so we cannot choose one way forward without compromising somewhere.

Kick in my recent systemic inquiry course …. Bang! …. Isn’t this a “wicked mess”? …. Bang! …. Don’t we have co-evolutionary entities with conflicting views?

Ok, so I can’t get the various software modules to come together around the table and become critically aware of each other’s worldviews. But I can spot that the relationships between the various modules and the business constraints that using the various methods for integration bring about. I can also work out the analog of an appreciative system for each module (how it came to be what it is and do what it does in the way it does), so can start to build a rich picture of the design tradeoffs in both technical & business terms. And I can use all of these to arrive at design alternatives with an understanding of the impact of each (I’m being ethical!)

So, Ray, I apologise for taking your well-crafted “soft” subject and making it much “harder” to use in a technology context but I’d say that is learning, wouldn’t you?

Strategy Development as a Critical Social Learning System

If you’ve managed to read the title of this post and still get to this point, well done! If you feel you need to know more, then suffice to say that in another life as an OU student, I am studying Systemic Inquiry. Where I struggle with this, other than finding that as an OU student you can’t go to the student union every night and get the worse for wear on cheap Yugoslavian wine (why, oh why, did I ever drink that stuff?), is in trying to put what I learn into the context of my day-to-day life in strategy formulation.

At this moment I’m studying about Critical Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. The big case in Critical Social Learning Systems goes back to Australian agricultural issues arising around Hawkesbury in the 1970s, but I’m more interested in the application in IT & business strategy where I suggest we could actually learn a lot.

Probably best if I try & say what a Critical Social Learning System (“CSLS”) is? Well, I’d actually describe it as a way that we all work together to develop our surroundings (I was going to say “environment” but I mean a wider sense than just eco-stuff); and in doing so we learn about ourselves & the changes we’re making so that we keep moving towards a mutually better world in which build up an understanding of how things interoperate & depend on each other. “Hmmmmm..?” as Greg Pfister would say, and “What has this to do with IT Strategy?” which, to be honest, he probably wouldn’t say.

Whilst CSLS is probably most suited to larger, social, situations, I think there are some key tenets that I could take here & suggest we should use when working on IT strategic development:

First up is the use of the word Critical, or applying Critical Thinking around what we do. This isn’t a negative thing, it’s about applying a set of thinking skills around what we’re doing in order to understand what we’re trying to do (in the wider scale of things) & what’s around to do it with. That latter piece: “What’s around to do it with” in IT strategy terms means trying to looks at the alternatives, evaluate them & then apply them to solve what we’ve originally set out to do.

Social brings about thoughts of more social entities, say, families or tribes but it actually applies to organisations; or communities of practice or interest. While I tend not to find a tribe of jungle dwellers dropping emails on me from time to time, I do get organisations and communities of practice of all sorts trying to communicate with me. For me however, the key here is that the communication is two-way in this model. In formulating our strategic thinking it shouldn’t be simply as a response to a challenge (“What is our strategy on cable radius, Russ?”…seriously!) but it should be co-operative across the business and set in the business context. After all, IT is following business strategy so it’s clear we should be working collaboratively.

And so to the elephant in the room…Learning. We do actually do this in our day-to-day work, “If I had known then what I know now….” but I’d suggest we don’t acknowledge it as a key part of what we do. Learning carries with it some bad connotations, “Why did it take you so long to find that out?”, and we’ve got to work past these and understand that we constantly are learning; and that in turns mean we may occasionally have to change our minds. This applies to strategy formulation and roadmaps – the world changes and so do our plans.

But learning actually carries a bit more with it as well, it’s not just about what I learned, but what I learned about how I learned so that maybe in future I can do it quicker or avoid a pitfall. It’s also about learning about how we see the world around us and how that affected what we actually learned this time. How much of what we create is a future plan or roadmap is actually constrained by what we believe to be so. Not good if we’re trying to be innovative with IT provision but our established view of the world cuts off potential solutions before we’ve given them consideration.

And so finally to System, or rather Systems. What is meant here is looking at the dynamics & inter-relationships between the components that make up the situation that we’re interested in formulating strategy for. In IT terms it can be thought about as between the computer systems themselves, but also the organisational inter-relations; and how the information delivery relates to process delivery relates to systems availability relates to organisational capability…..and so on.

In summary, what have we got?

Well, I think that we’ve got to think about IT strategy formulation in a much wider sense than simply looking through the binoculars and deciding which next hot technology to deploy. We’ve got to put what we do in context (yes, the Enterprise Architects will be saying they already do that…”All hail TOGAF!”); but we’ve got allow joint learning on all parts, not just keep this stuff in the dark, and we’ve got to be honest about it.

So now I’ve got that off my chest it’s time to go back to the academic dark side where there is a lot more structure about the use of language, I’ve been very lax in my descriptions above but hopefully I won’t get shot….yet. For me a see a new framework for doing what I do appearing, so watch this space….