Tag Archives: Systems

Was the Termintor wrong? It seems so

Four years ago I was moved to write a post “Was the Terminator so wrong after all?” based on a Gartner analyst making statements about the state of computer capability to make decisions. At the time I expressed some concern about where our automation of decision capabilities could lead us, and I wondered whether the scenarios painted in the terminator films of machines overtaking man could become reality.

Elsewhere I also made a comment or two about Big Data, and the hype at that time about it being able to solve all of our problems. Well, the raging IT skeptic in me is pleased to say that the outlook is brighter, or dimmer depending upon you point of view, than I had anticipated at that time.

The big news crossing my field of interest is a paper published by Ted Schadler et al at Forrester, and Ted’s blog post: Digital Insights Are the New Currency of Business which I suggest turns out to be both good and bad news.

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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….