Sunday, 18 April 2010

Paradoxes in EA and Systems Research

In my ongoing research, I have identified a close link between enterprise architecture/engineering and systems science. P. Harmon, the prominent business process thinker and author of the book Business Process Change (K. Harmon 2007), Hoogervorst (2009), and Dietz et al. (2008) all discuss the influence of systems science and systems thinking on the process management and enterprise engineering disciplines as such, whilst K. Harmon (2005) even stresses the contention that systems thinking is a basic premise for the successful IT/management strategy implementations in today's organisations. Interestingly, these authors share the same foundations of research: cybernetics and systems thinking as put forward by Norbert Wiener (1948) and Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1969) -- and for Dietz and K. Harmon, R. L. Ackoff (1981, 1993).

Obviously, systems science and cybernetics has offered very important contributions to IS research -- especially within process management where organisations are better conceived as self-regulating, self-controlling systems rather than Laplacian machines that reason and act only by their internal causal structures. Systems researchers such as Beer, Bertalanffy, Ackoff, and Checkland have all contributed towards making this a mainstream research branch within a multitude of sciences, and it has also found its way to the enterprise engineering. But K. Harmon's integration of enterprise architecture research and systems thinking is a good example of cybernetics as a research eulogy: we have finally found the magic gemstone that bridges the gap between our IT systems and business operations. 

Unsurprisingly, that wide statement come at the cost of certain ontological premises. In my thesis research, I have made an attempt at systematizing these premises and their ontological influences on enterprise architecture. The criticism might not be unique or new, but at least it is an attempt to put very important research in the broad frames of enterprise architecture. We keep stating that EA is the future meta discipline for the modern enterprise; thus we also need a broad meta framework that is capable of 1) questioning its own foundation and 2) supporting the diverse types of knowledge, processes, and methodologies within an organisation in order to create and sustain innovation. In my next blog entries, I will present these critique points, and hopefully receive some valuable feedback as well. I haven't been very good at replying to your valuable comments; that is only due to me being busy, and not because of arrogance or ignorance. I will post a follow up very soon. 

Defining Cybernetics
Before I present the initial critique, it is valuable to define what cybernetics really is, and how it relates to systems thinking. Both disciplines are often used interchangeably, but there are, depending on the author, certain differences. 
Systems theory and Norbert Wiener’s theory of cybernetics are closely related (Heylighen 1999). But where systems theory focuses mainly on the structure of systems, cybernetics concerns the function of a system (e.g. what the system does) in relation to other systems. But, as Heylighen puts forward in Principia Cybernetica, both concepts are facets of the same subject and have permeated into a vast amount of sciences from information systems and biology to social sciences (ibid.). To provide a comprehensive analysis of EA and systems thinking, it is thus also necessary to draw in cybernetics.
The word cybernetics stems from the Greek word kybernetes meaning pilot or steersman and was by one its pioneers, Norbert Wiener, defined as the science encompassing “the entire field of control an communication theory, wether in the machine or in the animal.” (Principia Cybernetica: Defining ‘Cybernetics’ - -- accessed on Apr 11 2010). However, that is only one branch of a definitional wilderness, spanning from Bateson’s very rigid explanation of cybernetics as “a branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness, and information” (ibid.) through Humberto Maturana’s very broad definition of cybernetics as “The Art and Science of Human Understanding. (…) Why? The Person that guides the ship, the skipper, acts both on practical know-how and intuition. Thus, the skipper acts both as a scientist and as an artist,” (ibid.) – and finally to Heinz von Foerster’s very cryptic conceptualisation: “Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity.” (Ibid.)
Concluding on the previous analysis of systems thinking within EA, it is tempting to assume that a systems theoretical foundation for EA is less mechanistic and more nuanced in its conceptualisation of knowledge and organisations. But, in my opinion, that assumption is flawed.

Paradox no. 1: The Enterprise is a System v. The Enterprise as a System
Systems science, as put forward by the authors previously mentioned, operates on the basic assumption that an enterprise is a system, and therefore one must frame it as a system in order to manage it efficiently[1]. But this “systemification” of organisation theory is just as reductionistic and mechanistic as orthodox Cartesian thinking: if we invert the implication, we are logically forced to accept the inference that if the subject matter of interest is not a system, it is not an enterprise. Operating from that premise automatically constrains our framing of organisations in another way and thus entails a new systemic reductionism in the EA discipline. There is a fundamental difference between postulating that enterprises carry systemic properties, behave like systems, or should be interpreted or framed as systems, since the conceptualisation here occurs at the epistemological level (how the knowledge about the subject matter is produced), rather than stating that the subject matter inherently is a system in its own right (which thus occurs on the ontological level -- this entails that the fundamental nature of reality or reality is essentially constituted by systems). The words ‘is’ or ‘behaves like’ make a very distinct -- and crucially important! -- difference.
Accordingly, the philosophical underpinnings of the notion that an enterprise is a system – and, as articulated by Bertalanffy, is best framed as a biological system or organism -- are questioned by Kast and Rosenzweig (1972): 

“One of the basic contributions of general systems theory was the rejection of the traditional closed-system or mechanistic view of social organizations. But, did general systems theory free us from this constraint only to impose another, less obvious one?” (Kast et al. 1972) 

Here the authors draw in Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn, who criticise the organismic perception of organisations (1966):

“The biological metaphor, with its crude comparisons of the physical parts of the body to the parts of the social system, has been replaced by more subtle, but equally misleading analogies between biological and social functioning. This figurative type of thinking ignores the essential difference between the socially contrived nature of social systems and the physical structure of the machine or the human organism. So as long as writers are committed to a theoretical framework based upon the physical model, they will miss the essential social-psychological facts of the highly variable, loosely articulated character of the social system” (Katz and Kahn, 1966, p. 31, my emphasis)

Both sources clearly underline the problems of the systems (or first order cybernetic) approach to organisations and EA: the baseline assumption that an enterprise is a system and that this system behaves like an organism (rather than like a predictable machine) is fallible and just as reductionistic and mechanistic as the Machine Age thinking introduced by Ackoff (1981).


[1] An example thereof: Dietz writes, “As said before, the basic premise of enterprise engineering is that an enterprise is a designed system” (Dietz et al. 2008, p. 573), and supports that contention by stating: “The most important premise in the notion of Enterprise Engineering is that an enterprise is a designed system instead of an organically growing entity.” (ibid. p. 578) Similarly, K. Harmon equals enterprises and systems by stating that “frameworks and methodologies used in the development of enterprise architecture should, and in time will, more clearly demonstrate that an enterprise is an intelligent complex adaptive system of systems” (K. Harmon 2005 p. 3).

Ackoff 1981: Creating the Corporate Future: Plan or be Planned For -- Ackoff, R. L., Wiley, 1981.
Ackoff 1993: Beyond Total Quality Management. High profile lecture. University of Hull, 18 September 1993.
Bertalanffy 1969: Bertalanffy, L. von, General Systems Theory, New York, George Braziller 1969.
Dietz et al. 2008: Enterprise Ontology in Enterprise Engineering -- Dietz, J. L. G and Hoogervorst, J. A. P. - Proceedings of the 2008 ACM symposium on Applied computing -- ACM.
K. Harmon 2005; , "The "systems" nature of enterprise architecture," Systems, Man and Cybernetics, 2005 IEEE International Conference on , vol.1, no., pp. 78- 85 Vol. 1, 10-12 Oct. 2005.
P. Harmon 2007: Business Process Change, 2nd edition, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2007. 
Heylighen et al 1999: Principia Cybernetica: What is Cybernetics and Systems Science? – F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn, V. Turchin 1999 – (Accessed on Apr 3 2010).
Hoogervorst 2009: Enterprise Governance and Enterprise Engineering, J. A. P. Hoogervorst, Springer 2009. 
Kast et al. 1972: General Systems Theory: Applications for Organization and Management – The Aaademy of Management Journal, Vol. 15. , No. 4, General Systems Theory (Dec. 1972) pp. 447-465, Fremont E. Kast and James E. Rosenzweig, publ. by the Academy of Management.
Katz and Kahn 1962: The Social Psychology of Organizations – Katz, Daniel and Robert L. Kahn, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 1966).
Wiener 1948: 

Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Wiener, N. Paris, France: Librairie Hermann & Cie, and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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