Friday, January 27, 2012

On the misuse of general principles

#entarch There is a common fallacy among enterprise architects that radical structural and behavioural change can and should be driven by a few simple and powerful ideas. Alas, the public sector is strewn with the disastrous consequences of this fallacy.

We can find countless examples from the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK. For Steve Harrison, Honorary Professor of Social Policy at the University of Manchester, the idea that NHS reorganisations can be triggered by a few general ideas is one of the Seven Fallacies of English Health Policy. He points out that high levels of abstraction (beloved by academics and architects alike) do not allow proper assessment of the plausibility of claims about benefits of reorganisation and how the system will work. (HT @mellojonny)

Where do health reorganization principles come from? I asked a popular search engine, and was led to a paper called Basic Principles of Information Technology Organization in Health Care Institutions (JAMIA 1997); (I suppose from the high search ranking of this paper that it is a widely used source for such principles.) The paper concludes that all organizations MUST have certain characteristics, based on a single case study where these characteristics seemed to be beneficial; in other words, arguing from the particular to the general. (I'm sure there must be some more rigorous studies, but they don't seem to get as good search rankings for some reason.)

But many of the principles that govern sweeping architectural reforms of the public sector aren't even derived by thinly based generalization from such observed vignettes, but are derived from purely abstract concepts such as "choice" and "competition" and "justice", to which each may attach his or her own politically motivated interpretation.

This leads to several levels of failure - not only failure of execution and planning (because the generalized principles are not sufficiently refined to provide realistic and coherent solutions to complex practical problems) but also failure of intention (because a vague but upbeat set of principles helps to conceal the fact that the underlying vision remains woolly).

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