Thursday, 27 January 2011

Architectural Control as a Managerial Paradox

In recent years, IS academia has argued that EA is increasingly becoming a strategic management tool or a high-level business function for long term planning and execution. It has been a healthy evolution for EA to question its IT heritage and adopt a broader perspective of how commercial enterprises navigate and gravitate in their respective marketplaces. This healthy evolution has particularly been articulated by Turner, Gotze, and Bernus (2010) in their paper Architecting the Firm: Coherency and Consistency in Managing the Enterprise, which argues the key role of architecture in executive management. Architected organisations are said to achieve better, more consistent results since the strategy is aligned and architected against operations, processes, and the technology portfolio.

As I have previously argued in my writings on strategic management, the assumed reality of strategic long term planning has to a large extent ignored the socio-political side of human and organisational behaviour. Planning is volatile and subject to rapid change in turbulent environments. As Rittel & Webber (1973) argue in their 1973 article on government policy and planning, assuming that any problem can be solved by rational planning will ultimately lead to confusion and failure. In their view, assumed rationality leads to unexpected ambiguity. Here, it is crucial to ask the question: if EA really is such a strategic discipline driven by the need for informed decision making, how can the first and always at-the-top-of-the-framework-pyramid component called strategy rely on such a naïve view of how human planning works in practice? This discussion is by no means new; already in the late 90ies, Mintzberg (2002) argued the need for an organic, emergent view of strategy by elaborating on Simon’s (1997) concept of bounded, contextual rationality. 

Let us for a short moment forget about strategy as an applied, deliberate package of human reason and rather think of strategy as inherently equivocal. Management concepts, as they often arrive straight out of the business scholar’s first year text book on business strategy, are, in fact, paradoxical and ambiguous despite the strive for precision and forecasting. This is explained in the following:

  1. The first paradox concerns the relationship between assumption of control vs. human and environmental ambiguity. The more one attempts to control and superimpose predictability onto reality, the more imprecise and irregular reality, in fact, becomes. This classic paradox of the manager as an assumed homo oeconomicus is discussed in depth by Kallinikos (2004).
  2. The second paradox is three-sided: the short, very generic nature of corporate vision and mission statements vs. the corporate search for control and manageability vs. the complexity of the business ecology surrounding the enterprise. The first facet is short and simple, where the second facet strives for precision, detail, and consistency, both which in turn neglect the ecological complexity and institutional pressure (the third facet) of the organisation’s environment.
  3. The third, most noticeable paradox is the fact that the implicit equivoque of high-level mission/vision statements fosters organisational resilience. The more loosely or ill-defined the strategy, the better will the official policy document fit into the actions and immediate strategies (what Weick (2001) denotes just in time strategies) deployed by employees to fulfil or achieve certain goals and expectations (Astley & Zammuto, 1992). The more ambiguous the official strategy or policy articulation, the more free hands for the individual employee to appropriately navigate the socio-political problems of the business environment. Despite the intended precision of a strategy document, the more possible interpretations of a strategic policy or plan, the more organisational resilience and responsiveness (Weick, 2001).

However, it is too simplistic to assume that corporate ambiguity per se triggers organisational resilience and flexibility. In that case, any old plan would do.The paradoxical nature of precision and ambiguity is better understood as a second order systems theoretical concept (Luhmann, 1995 & Luhmann, 2000), in which any system, be it social or biological/ecological, applies certain reductionisms in order to reduce the outside complexity the environment. In Luhmann’s theory of symbolically generalised media within social systems, phenomena such as scientific truth, politics, sex, and power are applied by different institutional systems in order to reduce the complexity and ambiguity of modern society. Similarly, organisations as social systems deliberately deploy equivocal mission statements and simplistic strategies in order to interpret and cope with a hyper-complex, fast-paced business environment. Despite the claim of predictability, strategic long term plans are thus put in place in order to reduce societal complexity and constraints to static architectural maps and prescriptive policies. The reduced conception of reality is by no means successful or comprehensive enough to account for all important details simultaneously, but it makes reality manageable until the actions taken and plans made are reasonable enough (see  reasonableness as a criterion for strategic success in (Weick, 2001)). 

As Teubner (2000) writes, strategic planning fosters productive misunderstandings: business strategies have to be misunderstood (compared to what was originally intended by e.g. senior management) and reinterpreted in the particular reality and bounded rationality of the individual. The final, synthesised (mis-)understanding of strategy, mission, and vision serves to build and sustain resilience and organisational responsiveness---but only with reference to the organisation itself. As Luhmann’s sociology tells us, the end result would never achieve the same results in the outside reality. This also explains why replicating or adopting existing patterns of strategy will most likely lead to a bad result without adopting, contextualising, and productively misunderstanding the presumed strategic rationality. Good strategies are misunderstood, self-referential and contextual whilst fostering resilience and adaptability.

It is my conception that EA must adopt such view of strategic thinking as a self-referential, ambiguity-producing human practice in order to successfully navigate the needs and requirements of tomorrow’ adaptive and flexible virtual enterprises.

Astley, W. G. & Zammuto, R. F. (1992), `Organization Science, Managers, and Language Games', Organization Science 3(4), 443{460.
Kallinikos, J. (2004), `Deconstructing Information Packages: Organizational and Behavioural Implications of ERP Systems', Information Technology & People 17(1), 8-30.
Luhmann, N. (1995), Social Systems, Writing Science, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
Luhmann, N. (2000), The Reality of the Mass Media, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B., & Lampel, J. (2002). Strategy safari (2nd ed.). LT Prentice Hall. 
Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973), `Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning', Policy Sciences 4.
Simon, H. A. (1997), Models of Bounded Rationality, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA.
Teubner, G. (2000), `Contracting worlds: Invoking discourse rights in private governance regimes', Social and Legal Studies 9, 399-417.,
Turner, P., Gøtze, J., Bernus, P. (2010) Architecting the Firm: Coherency and Consistency in Managing the Enterprise. In Bernus et al (2010) Enterprise Architecture, Integration and Interoperability: IFIP TC 5 International Conference, EAI2N 2010, Held as Part of WCC 2010, Brisbane, Australia, September 20-23, 2010, Proceedings. 
Weick, K. E. (2001), Making Sense of the Organization, Blackwell Publishing.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Bank Branches need Process Improvement

I am generally a happy client with my personal bank here in Australia. Their online services are good, they have excellent phone service, always reply to my enquiries with a smile, and service fees are kept at a minimum. However, two weeks ago I had an experience I thought belonged to the pre-Gorbachev era. My wife and I went to the bank in order to integrate consolidate our bank accounts and personal finances. Also, we wanted to migrate a single credit card into both our names as shared card holders. With many couples consolidating their banking business every day, this really shouldn't be a complex process, even though it turned out to be a dull three hour experience. Forget about going to the bank in your lunch break to finally get those accounts sorted out: you will need at least an afternoon to get things right.
Let's investigate the processes involved in this relatively client request: 
  1. Verify client identity
  2. Open x new client bank accounts
  3. Transfer funds from existing bank accounts to new bank accounts
  4. Close y old client bank accounts
  5. Update client and card holder details for MasterCard credit card
  6. Verify details and finalise client request
For a bank (and the branch officer), these processes should be relatively trivial and simple. Following Porter and Harmon (Harmon, 2007), these are core bank service processes. I had expected 30-45 minutes including a couple of signatures, a few mouse clicks, and maybe an internal phone call to a service desk. How could that result in three hours? These were the main process flaws:
  1. The poor customer service officer spent more time looking for the correct paper forms and subsequently printing these out for further processing. The bank has a comprehensive Intranet site providing access to all client request forms with an enormous tree folder structure, and she even tipped over the screen so I could have a look for the right place to find the form. All relevant forms for a account closure and account opening were located in completely different folders, completely detached from the actual client task. Furthermore, all forms were given long, cryptic names, which made the whole operation even more painful (who would have guessed that HD30 is the code for an account transfer request?).
  2. Lack of task and process orientation: the user interface on the service officer's screen was data-driven and not process-focused. For each step in the processes, she had to navigate through a hierarchy of different Intranet pages to find the right forms and data entry screens. Some of these screens (or web based wizards) were task oriented, but only at the most local level. One client request thus consisted of invoking six different wizards dispersed over three different application systems each with its own user interface, constraints, and terminology. I would recommend looking in to consolidating end-to-end business processes inside the same process engine operating on the same account data.
  3. Basic process tasks were delayed and not properly formalised. It is crucial for a bank to verify the identity of its clients to prevent fraud, also for people walking in from the street. Verifying the client's identity should this be a basic condition for proceeding with any further steps in the above processes. But only after 30 minutes spent on printing out five-six different request forms and allocating all of our bank accounts did the service officer actually ask for our driver's licenses in order to confirm that I was actually me. Now, what if I had forgotten my driver's license and I had to come by another day? That could have saved both her and I for 60 wasted minutes, although I fortunately had remembered my license. It is probably the most basic conditional task (or in BPMN terms: decision gateway) for all basic client processes. All requests demand confirming the correct identity. Move all conditional, security and identity related decision points to the earliest possible point in your banking process. It might sound like common sense, but with multiple entry points for invoking a client request (online, in person, phone call), it is crucial to use integrate all authentication in a uniform fashion across all business processes.
  4. No visual graphic of process path and progress---neither for the service officer or client. A visual progress overview generally makes people more patient and clarifies the tasks at hand (imagine having a non-technical EPC or BPMN model of all of the above processes for the customer service officer to follow).
  5. No process Key Performance Indicators or client feedback integrated into the workflow. The friendly, but frustrated customer service officer could have ended the (albeit very lengthy) transfer process by asking me: how would you rate this transaction? Is there anything we can do better? Process improvement demands learning and systems feedback being fed back into the next process cycles. Only from incremental improvement cycles can significant process improvements be won (Seddon & Caulkin, 2007). This demands a balance between quantitative (e.g. processing time, number of mouse clicks, processing/systems exceptions) and qualitative process indicators (client satisfaction, that friendly smile on the face, welcoming clients in the branch, offering them a glass of water whilst the banking transaction is cooking) (Zokaei et al., 2010).
These recommendations and conclusions are by no means revolutionary or unique. The important difference is that ideas emerged from a---at least in the blueprints---simple visit to my local bank; a visit that in the end brought a lot of frustrations and ultimately improvement ideas on the table. With the billions of dollars each year spent on IT portfolio management and business analysis in the financial sector and a GFC finally returning to the historical wastelands of our capitalist society, one would assume that significant improvements---and (systems) learning---have been discovered. Paradoxically enough, the budgets are apparently still spent on building cluttered unintuitive user interfaces and manually integrating disparate data sources at the cost of redundancy, whilst ignoring the fundamental structure of systems learning and feedback.

Harmon, P. (2007), Busines Process Change, 2nd edn, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.
Seddon, J. & Caulkin, S. (2007), `Systems thinking, lean production and action learning', Action Learning: Research and Practice 4(1), 9-24.
Zokaei, K., Elias, S., O'Donovan, B., Samuel, D., Evans, B. & Goodfellow, J. (2010), Lean and Systems Thinking in the Public Sector in Wales (Report for the Wales Audit Office), Technical report, Lean Enterprise Research Centre, Cardi Business School, Cardi , Wales, UK