Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Communication Architecture

In my previous research, I have investigated the relationship between transformation, planning, and communication in large-scale architecture programs. Obviously and unsurprisingly, communication has a huge impact on the perception and relative success of enterprise architecture and change management initiatives. The important turning point, that I have argued so far, is the way communication shapes and is shaped by the organisational systems in which it takes place. The German sociologists Dirk Baecker and Niklas Luhmann have been my primary sources of inspiration and research for formulating a set of guiding principles for change programs that do not simply assume that communication is a fully informed and unambiguous process of sending and receiving objectified information. Organisations and their people are all systems in which communication takes place. The boundaries, values, and cognitive processes of each system influence and complicate the practice of communication, which, in turn, requires a complex systems model to model and explain its behaviour.
Most architecture methodologies highlight the need to share and communicate architectural plans and roadmaps with key stakeholders in a timely fashion. Whilst frameworks often offer templates and tools, they often fail to explain how and why stakeholders may not understand or simply ignore the intent and agenda of enterprise architecture. Technical problems, overtly detailed artefacts, and too abstract abstractions are often mentioned as the reoccurring problems when attempting to “sell” enterprise architecture to the CXO level. Paradoxically, what was meant to help, guide, and transform the enterprise has now become its own architectural swan song as it drowns in a bureaucracy of templates, procedures, and formalities. This is an indication that the intent and purpose of architecture was not communicated properly to the right people at the right time.

Architectural layers and principles ensure that enterprise transformation is carried out in a coherent fashion. The prime role of the architect is to balance and align business and technology and link these factors back to the enterprise’s objectives, mission, and vision. However, despite communication having a huge impact on people, change, and actual outcomes, it has never been an explicit part of this equation. Communication is often assumed to be rational and presumed to be well-functioning, running in the background of people’s minds and the organisation’s offices just as the Java garbage collector picks up and purges empty object pointers in the Java virtual machine. Assuming a highly complex, volatile social process to behave in such an ordered, rational manner is all too simplistic: human communication and social processes simply don’t behave that way.

So what is the alternative? The obvious choice is to integrate communication as a core concept and layer in enterprise architecture itself – the communication architecture. Here, communication refers mainly to the social processes of human and computer interaction and – not pure computer networks or algorithmic manipulation of signals. On the other hand, communication is not only about people and utterances – computers and technology play a vital role as well as an efficient transport medium. My point is that communication in itself is a socio-technical system describing the complex message exchange between humans, intentions, and machines – or, in C. S. Peirce’s words, a semiotic system. Semiotic systems have dissipative structures of signs in networks constituted equally by humans and machines. Communication in enterprises can be interpreted as complex signs, manifested in dialogues, written emails, and network packets in the router. Some communications are relatively stable (a published document or a sequence of bytes representing an email) whereas others are fragile and chaotic (human intentions, political agendas, gossip by the water cooler).  Their manifestations are entirely different, but the purpose remains the same: exchanging ideas, values, and intentions – utterances – between people in- and outside the enterprise in order to ensure its long-term survival. As I havepreviously pointed out in this blog, enterprises as socio-communicative systems have rhizomatic properties – the modern enterprise should not be solely viewed as a hierarchy of processes, layers, and computers, but also as a constantly transforming multiplicity of events and signs. Thus, the theoretical foundation for describing the communication architecture of the modern enterprise must be found within the theory of organisational semiotics and sign theory.

In upcoming blog posts I will attempt to tie these very theoretical reflections back into a practicable architecture framework for organisational communication.


  1. Hi Anders - just to say that I _really_ like where you're going with this. The metaphor of Java garbage-collection was rather nice (failed architecture-communication as 'fighting fires'?). And yes, architecture-communications definitely does have an architecture of its own.

    I may need some help with Luhmann etc - sometimes a bit too abstract for this 'Bear Of Little Brain' :-) - but please do keep in touch with me on this: I think you're tackling something that's really important and the few other people have even started to address.

  2. Thanks a lot, Tom! The Java Garbage Collection metaphor was probably stretching it a bit -- however, in practice, it is exactly similar to how many of the EA frameworks and methodologies preconceive the nature of communications: a rigorous process of sending, transmitting, and receiving signals.

    I fully concur that the reliance on Luhmann in my blog posts needs more elaboration. I wrote a smaller background piece on exactly this in my thesis so I will rewrite this to fit in my blog instead.