Sunday, July 28, 2013

Schism and doubt

On Friday 14th June, there was a public meeting of the EAST group, entitled Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture and Systems Thinking, kindly hosted by BT in its offices near St Paul's. Tom Graves has posted a detailed write-up on his blog At ‘EA and Systems-Thinking’ conference.

What is the purpose of dialogue between EA and ST? Putting aside the debate about what the labels "Enterprise Architecture" and "Systems Thinking" might mean, there is certainly a thought that the two (or more) communities can learn from each other. There are strengths and weaknesses on both sides - so we may be able to produce a critique of EA from an ST perspective, or a critique of ST from an EA perspective. For example, in his presentation, John Holland asserted that "EA is broken - How ST can help". (See Tom's blog for summary.)

This kind of material often arouses a certain kind of resistance. "He's not talking about me, he must be talking about someone else." Where are the EAs to whom such a criticism as John's might apply? Surely the fact that we are going to these meetings, or reading these blogs, or participating in these Linked-In discussions, puts us into the most sophisticated and reflective quartile? 

One of the fundamental questions underlying discussion of EA and ST is imagining some kind of landscape with more or less distinct zones: EA over here, ST over there, this or that school of EA, this or that school of ST, good EA versus bad EA, authentic ST versus fake ST, mainstream versus next practice.

I have written several pieces on the relationship between Enterprise Architecture (EA) and Systems Thinking (ST), on this blog and elsewhere, but such pieces are always open to challenge by those who disagree about the correct use of the labels.

  • "That's not what real Enterprise Architects do."
  • "That's not really Systems Thinking."
So it sometimes seems that we cannot even start talking about EA and ST, and about the relationship (if any) between them, until we can agree what these terms mean. The desire to name things properly is an ancient one, and can be found in the Analects of Confucius. (See my post on the Wisdom of Confucius). But the prevailing desire to impose one's own definitions leads to endless and mostly unproductive debate on Linked-In and elsewhere. For this meeting, we hoped for a more productive energy, and I like to think we largely succeeded.

Some of the speakers fell into a dialectic mode of presentation - on the one hand EA, on the other hand ST. This can be useful as a starting point, but if the distinction between EA and ST is taken too seriously it may drive a wedge between practitioners. As Tom commented, "there don’t seem to be any clear distinctions, any absolute boundaries that determine who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’ – all a bit blurry all round, really." For my part, instead of trying to avoid making any distinctions whatsoever, I put up a few slides with some provocative and playful distinctions, flagged with "possibly" and "tongue-in-cheek". But I haven't always been consistent about this, and (as someone pointed out to me) I probably need to be more careful when making a rhetorical contrast between "mainstream" and "next practice".

The EA/ST landscape may include Confucian and dialectic modes, but it should also include Daoist and dialogic modes. (For a brief explanation of the difference between dialectic and dialogic, see Wikipedia: Dialogic.) Robust debate between dogmatic EA and dogmatic ST may lead to schism, but even that is preferable to bland and empty speech. If we want to have a serious discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of current practice, then we must be prepared for robust critique, and we should not have to worry about over-sensitive practitioners taking everything personally.

One possible aspiration is to build a bridge between two communities, or perhaps even one single community. In their presentation, Patrick Hoverstadt and Lucy Loh presented some recent work of the EAST working group, showing how the concepts and techniques of EA and ST could be combined to address business challenges. This work is ongoing.
If we take the view that community building depend on affiliation (finding common beliefs and values), then any schism and doubt may seem to undermine this agenda. However, there is a more robust path to community building, based on alliance (accepting and overcoming difference for the sake of collaboration). For an eloquent defence of what she calls Deep Disagreement, see Margaret Heffernan's TED Talk Dare to Disagree.

Perhaps some people will think me perverse, but I look forward to plenty more friendly disagreement between EA and ST in future.




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