Friday, February 25, 2011

Modernism and Enterprise Architecture

Underlying conventional enterprise architecture theory and practice are some implicit assumptions that could be loosely characterized as modernist. Several people are offering more or less radical departures from conventional enterprise architecture, which could be loosely characterized as post-modern.

Aspects of Modernism

Fordism Simple decomposition of responsibility, authority, expertise and work (RAEW)
Functionalism “Form follows function”
Linear Explanation Simple association between cause and effect – e.g. process improvement.
Cartesian Theatre Unified representation of what is going on (WIGO).
Central Planning Unified decision-making.
Unified Value System Complete and consistent set of shared goals and objectives on behalf of “The Enterprise”.
Ultimate Solution Converging towards an ideal set of systems, perfectly aligned to “The Business”.

Limitations of Modernism

  • Difficulties handling complexity, emergence and self-organization.
  • Lack of agility, flexibility, evolution.
  • Constrains organizational learning.
  • No explicit treatment of holistic architectural properties such as balance and harmony.
  • No room for pluralism and human values.

Towards Postmodernism

Obviously the labels "classical" and "modernist" can mean different things, but I associate the classical approach to architecture with Vitruvius - Firmness, Commodity and Delight - and I see the essential characteristics of the classical aesthetic as an emphasis on balance, harmony and order.

This emphasis on balance is completely absent from the modernist functionalist aesthetic, which seems to assume that if you take care of the parts and connect them together properly, the whole will look after itself.

The IT modernists (such as James Martin) told us to concentrate on Commodity (roughly translated as functional requirements), because Firmness (reliability and other non-functional) could be handled by technical design and innovation, and Delight could be handled by user design specialists (ha!). For his part, Zachman has said nothing to indicate that he doesn't fully share this mindset, and his interpretation of the "classical" is conceptually and metaphysically flawed. We may note that most of the notations favoured by enterprise architects (IDEF, UML, ArchiMate) concentrate on the functional.

In our time, it is of course Alexander and Salingaros who represent the return to balance and order, as the title of Alexander's masterwork indicates, although I suspect they would not take kindly to being labelled as neo-classical.

Meanwhile, an emphasis on self-organization and heroic agility can be seen as echoing some of the romantic aesthetic. After all, the post-modern aesthetic often combines elements of the neo-classical with elements of the neo-romantic.

Exploration of New Ideas


In response to the perceived limitations of the modernist approach to enterprise architecture, various thinkers are looking into other disciplines for ideas that can be imported into enterprise architecture.

Systems Thinking Holism and Emergence
Viable Systems Model (VSM)
Wicked problems
Dissipative Structures (Prigonine via @empiricator)
Design Thinking
and Urbanism
Creativity
Organic planning
Metadesign 
Pace layering
Post-modernism
Organization Theory Loosely coupled systems
Self-organizing systems
Ecological Thinking Panarchy
Evolutionary change
Complexity Theory Anticipative Systems
Complex Adaptive Systems
Dynamics of Strategy (I-Space, Cynefin)

have I missed anything?

The challenge here is two-fold. Firstly, how can a heterogeneous selection of ideas from different sources be combined into a coherent approach? Secondly, what kind of practical hands-on research (reflective practice) is needed to turn interesting speculation into grounded and credible knowledge?

Some Post-Modern and Other Approaches to EA

I don't know how many of the following approaches can be properly described as postmodern, but they all represent various attempts to break free from the limitations of modernism.

Philip Boxer et al, Asymmetric Design

Dave Duggal and William Malyk, Putting Work in Context for Enterprise Agility (December 2010)

Nicholas Gall (Gartner), Panarchitecture: Architecting a Network of Resilient Renewal (January 2011)

Nigel Green, A new context for EA: The Enterprise: An ecosystem of values and value (Sept 2010)

Dion Hinchcliffe, Post-Modern Enterprise Architecture: Service-Oriented, Agile, Decentralized (April 2005). Pragmatic new models for enterprise architecture take shape (August 2009)

@aojensen Pondering a new model of architecture and postmodern complexity: Deleuze’s rhizome as the substitute for architectural layers and control. (June/July 2010) via Tom Graves. On management and systems (Aug 2009) On architecture and strategy (Aug 2009) Architectural control as a management paradox (Jan 2011)

@rlimbanda To understand human systems based on postmodern natural architecture and the transformation of 21st century social enterprise. // And to understand and share the things that make us human #thoozd (December 2009) via Tom Graves

Further reading

Max Boisot and Bill McKelvey, Complexity Science-A Bridge Between Modernist and Postmodernist Perspectives (2008)

Hubert Maturana, Metadesign (1997)

Neil McBride, Rachel Lander and Steve McRobb, Postmodernist Business Information Management 1997 (HTML, PDF)

See my previous post on Adaptation and Adaptability

See Linked-In discussion "Is Enterprise Architecture (and IT in general) trapped in the psychological prison of Modernity?" from January 2011 onwards



Updated October 21, 2012

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