Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Boundaryless Information Flow

@theopengroup describes itself as "a vendor-neutral and technology-neutral consortium, whose vision of Boundaryless Information Flow™ will enable access to integrated information, within and among enterprises, based on open standards and global interoperability". But what exactly is Boundaryless Information Flow?

I had always seen this slogan as representing a continuation of the "open" thinking that inspired the Open Systems movement. The Open Group itself was a merger between the Open Software Foundation and X/Open, and was originally focused on UNIX. [Wikipedia: The Open Group]

This agenda was presented in numerous articles in the early 2000s. See for example these articles by Allen Brown, president of the Open Group (Oct 2002, Dec 2003).

But nowadays, a lot of the activity of The Open Group is now focused on enterprise architecture and TOGAF. Perhaps as a consequence of this, much the emphasis of recent materials appears to be on information flow and interoperability inside a single organization.

Boundaryless Information Flow, a shorthand representation of “access to integrated information to support business process improvements” represents a desired state of an enterprise’s infrastructure and is specific to the business needs of the organization. [Open Group Vision and Mission, retrieved 20 June 2011]
A Boundaryless Organization needs Boundaryless Information Flow and the systems currently supporting the business processes present obstacles because they contain multiple stovepipe point solutions where information is not currently shared – that is there is a lack of integrated information. [Open Group FAQ, retrieved 20 June 2011]

It seemed to me that the TOGAF folk are largely focused on internal information sharing (what I call endo-interoperability). So I contacted Allen Brown to check whether this implied that the original mission of the Open Group had been watered down, and whether the Open Group had any other initiatives devoted to open exchanges between organizations and across ecosystems (exo-interoperability). Allen assured me that the original mission remained in force, and emphasized that the term "enterprise" should be understood to refer to the extended enterprise and not just the traditional organization.
In 1995, Ron Ashkenas and others published a book called The Boundaryless Organization, based on work done with Jack Welch at General Electric. According to some sources, the term was coined by Welch. See review by Barbara Noble (Strategy+Business, April 1996).

But what's wrong with boundaries anyway, and should we take the rhetoric of boundarylessness literally? Undoubtedly, many existing boundaries are dysfunctional and create inefficient, ineffective and error-prone processes, but that doesn't mean that all boundaries are necessarily bad. Apparently, even Jack Welch didn't think that boundarylessness implied a complete absence of boundaries, merely that the boundaries needed to be porous. In other words, managed interfaces.

But just think about it. If all the boundaries are removed or porous, then the (extended) enterprise or ecosystem becomes like a giant sponge, in which all information permeates the whole. Some people may think that's a good idea, but it's not what I'd call loose coupling.

In my 2001 book on the Component-Based Business, I explained the importance of (non-porous) boundaries in loosely coupled enterprises and ecosystems, and outlined some of the design and management principles for managing boundaries between autonomous and robustly bounded chunks of business capability (which I called business components). My work was influenced by organizational theorists such as Larry Hirschhorn and Karl Weick, as well as earlier work by Lawrence and Lorsch.

The relationship between boundaries and loose coupling is an important one. I don't think anyone is saying that a business component is as rigorously encapsulated as a software component, but an autonomous business component needs to have some ability to cut itself off from its environment. Concepts such as information hiding, knowledge hiding, specialization, separation of concerns and division of responsibilities all imply some degree of closure rather than total openness.

How many people understand the implications of this? Perhaps I need to publish a new edition of my book.

Loizos Heracleous, Boundaries in the study of organization (Human Relations 57/1, 2004)

Larry Hirschhorn and Thomas Gilmore, The New Boundaries of the “Boundaryless” Company (HBR May–June 1992)

references added 15 Feb 2016

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