Thursday, 7 April 2011

On the Brink of Structure and Chaos: Framework Prescription and Real-World Flexibility

An often returning discussion with my clients is the practical applicability, boundaries, and presumptions of enterprise architecture (EA) frameworks. Following a recent debate on LinkedIn, some EA practitioners suggest that dynamic systems models, such as Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model (VSM) (Beer, 1994) , should actually replace existing prescriptive framework practices. In my own thesis (Jensen, 2010), I furthermore discuss the options of integrating cybernetic and second order systemic models in enterprise architecture planning and management on the basis of a thorough analysis of Australian government EA and SOA practice.
However, in this debate, it is important not to frame systems thinking as the silver bullet, which can magically and immediately fix all problems of management practice, be it process management or government architecture planning. Systemic thinking in itself may, actually, be overly prescriptive through reductionist assertions of how organisations function, e.g. through the claim: “organisations are systems” as opposed to “organisations behave as systems in particular situations.” Assuming that the world consists of systems as an ontological pre-given only paves the way for yet another prescriptive theory.
I usually tell my clients that there are two key observations around healthy framework and methodology practice. This basically boils down to admitting the following two claims:
  1. Best practice frameworks and reference models provide a great starting point and rational structure for beginning an architecture endeavour. Obviously, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, and the frameworks provide a common language and conceptual platform for sharing ideas and implementing projects. Any good framework provides the tools, templates, and management structure for relatively quickly deploying the skeleton of an architecture practice. Prescription gives guidance, direction, and shared understanding of EA purpose and planning.
  2. However, prescription may also heavily limit the creativity and flexibility of rapid transformation projects. EA is often put in place in order to rapidly change the organisation for the better --- or what Hjort-Madsen (2008) calls architecting for better outcomes. If the method is too inflexible or does not allow people to make shortcuts and rapid improvements for the better, it is a sign of too heavy prescription. Architecture turns into a handicap as opposed to providing a viable management reporting function. Architecture has transformed into a heavy-weight documentation exercise producing massive stacks of documents that nobody will ever return to again.

Good framework practice comes from finding the right balance between structure and flexibility. The framework must guide, direct, and support the architects at work so they can share and reuse where possible. On the other hand, the framework should promote and highlight the appropriate degree of managerial buffer in order to easily overcome problems and churn out creative solutions as opposed to locking down framework users by applying layers of managerial review and approval bureaucracy for the sake of (often unnecessary) traceability. As my thesis research indicates, an Australian state government agency chose to temporarily ignore their EA modelling and documentation framework whilst transitioning from current to future state.  Technological, political, and managerial changes occurred so often that the existing reference framework was simply too prescriptive. After reaching a point of reasonable stability in terms of business requirements and change in demand, it was then feasible to return to the structural stability and rigour of the framework.
My key message is therefore: be careful when implementing your architecture practice in your organisation. Your people need structure and guidance but also flexibility and buffer for overcoming changes rapidly in an elegant fashion.

Beer, S. (1994). Brain of the Firm (Classic Beer Series). Wiley.
Hjort-Madsen, K. (2009), Architecting Government: Understanding Enterprise Architecture
Adoption in the Public Sector, Phd doctorate.

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