Friday, March 02, 2012

Enterprise POSIWID

#bizarch #entarch #POSIWID As anyone knows who has attempted serious business and organizational transformation, an enterprise can be as stubborn as a teenager. Complex systems have strong feedback loops that maintain and restore the status quo against the most forceful and ingenious interventions.

One way of thinking about this challenge is to identify two distinct sets of purposes. On the one hand, there are the official intentions and plans of the leadership, which define what the purpose of the enterprise is supposed to be. We may call this the nominal purpose of the enterprise. Many enterprise architecture frameworks regard the nominal purposes as paramout, and are dedicated to realizing them. But on the other hand, the observed behaviour of the enterprise can best be explained in terms of an entirely different set of purposes, which repeatedly frustrate the official intentions and plans of the leadership. (See for example my post [Why New Systems Don't Work].) These are sometimes called defacto purpose; alternatively we can call it POSIWID, which stands for Stafford Beer's maxim that the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does. Large organizations and ecosystems are subject to inertia, and expensive initiatives often fall disappointingly short of expectations - this is the POSIWID effect at work. And of course there may be multiple conflicting defacto purposes [POSIWID should be plural].

POSIWID may also mean that there are covert purposes at work. Sometimes a corporate bureaucracy appears to be designed to make life difficult for employees and customers, as Tom Graves observes in relation to United's complaint resolution system [February 2010]; even if such a design is not consciously planned, it may be sustained by the short-term benefits it confers (such as cost-saving or corporate convenience).

Within enterprise architecture itself, we can perhaps distinguish between nominal purpose and defacto. Never mind what EA ought to be doing, if many enterprise architects are merely playing Framework Bingo, then many people will assume that to be the de facto purpose of EA [July 2008].
When TOGAF 9 introduced (but failed to explain) the term "Holistic Enterprise Change", I suggested it might mean something like this. When you make changes to the business as well as changes to the systems, you may get more than you bargained for. Conversely, when you make changes to the technical systems without making changes to the human systems, you may get less than you bargained for [February 2009].

By the way, Patrick Hoverstadt may well touch on some of these issues in his talk to the BCS Enterprise Architecture group in London next Thursday.

Tom Graves, Economics as enterprise architecture (March 2010)



Nick Gall said...


The reason I asked "Does an enterprise violate #POSIWID?" in my tweet (!/ironick/status/132448136072409089), was in response to the description of your Business Architecture Bootcamp ( In it, you describe five "key business viewpoints". The first viewpoint is labeled “What the business wants” (which corresponds to what you call the “nominal purpose” in this post) and the second is labeled “What the business does” (which corresponds to what you call the “defacto purpose” in this post).

As you say in this post, the P in POSIWID is synonymous with what you call the “defacto purpose.” So my “violation” comment was simply the somewhat ironic point that the attempt to propose nominal goals is an attempt to violate POSIWID.

But the more serious question my ironic tweet raises is what exactly is the relationship between the nominal purpose and the defacto purpose; and in particular what positive impact the effort to articulate the nominal purpose has on the defacto purpose, if any. But I’m afraid this post does not answer this question. In fact most of this post is spent describing how the defacto purpose is often at odds with the nominal purpose, i.e., it further undercuts the relevance of articulating a nominal purpose for the enterprise.

But many of us already knew that. We’re on to the next question: “If the defacto purpose is so often at odds with the nominal purpose, why should we even bother articulating a nominal purpose?” We typically don’t bother articulating a nominal purpose for nations, cities, economies, environments, and other complex adaptive systems (or at least not to the degree we do for businesses), and they seem to thrive and last far longer than businesses do. So why bother doing it for businesses?

We accept that the purpose of such complex emergent systems (CAS) is simply the byproduct of the interaction of all the sub-purposes of the actors composing the CAS. You seem to suggest the same approach in your [POSIWID should be plural] post, so why not follow through on it?

Why not simply stop articulating proposed goals and values for the entire enterprise, and simply articulate them at the subsystem level? Sales, Finance, HR, Unions, Product Development, etc. can all articulate nominal purposes for their stakeholders, and then battle it out at the enterprise level over key decisions impacting multiple stakeholder groups. In other words, at the enterprise level, let these subgoals continually compete or trade-off against one another.

In such an approach, architects would stop attempting to help the CxOs and the Board articulate the nominal purpose and start attempting to create governance structures that merely enable defacto (unstated except in retrospect) enterprise purposes to emerge from various trade-off mechanisms, e.g., voting. Again, that’s what we do for other social/political CASes; why not for business as well, especially for the largest and most complex businesses and other organizations, e.g., IBM, Shell, Toyota, General Dynamics?

Until I hear more about how the exercise of articulating a nominal purpose for the enterprise itself positively impacts the defacto purpose that subsequently emerges, I’ll continue to be skeptical that the exercise provides ANY value. In other words, I’ll continue to regard such an exercise as an attempt by enterprise leadership to violate POSIWID. :)

Richard Veryard said...

Nick raises an interesting question about the purpose of Purpose - is there any point discussing nominal purposes when (as POSIWID tells us) we should be careful not to take them at face value?

My answer is that nominal purposes are important because people think they are. Resources and energies are allocated according to nominal purposes, and it would be very strange for business architects to disdain them altogether.

And we shouldn't take POSIWID at face value either. Leadership always involves challenging the status quo, including POSIWID.

The future structure and behaviour of the enterprise generally emerges from the interaction between nominal purpose and defacto purpose, not from defacto purpose alone. Business architecture needs to have some way of thinking about this complex interaction, and I use the term "what the business wants" as a shorthand way of referring to a plurality of explicit and implicit and almost certainly conflicting purposes, not just the traditional top-down goal or MBO hierarchy.

Of course the complex relationship between "what the business wants" and "what the business does" is complex - as it is between any two architectural viewpoints. Architecture would be trivially easy if we only viewed the business from a single viewpoint, or if we took everything our clients told us at face value; most of the time we are struggling with the structural implications of one viewpoint being at odds with another viewpoint, and with perceptions ("espoused theory") being at odds with reality ("theory in use").

POSIWID may be a strong force if we ignore it, but sometimes we may be able to outwit it. And this isn't always leadership from the top (as Nick refers to CXOs and the board) but may equally involve edge leadership - intelligent and coordinated action in response to asymmetric demand. Even if architects are merely creating governance structures, as Nick suggests, they are still serving some set of interests and intentions, and it might be useful to understand the WHY as well as the FOR WHOM.

Nick Gall said...

Richard, Your terminology is confusing me. In your response to my comment you say 'I use the term "what the business wants" as a shorthand way of referring to a plurality of explicit and implicit and almost certainly conflicting purposes, not just the traditional top-down goal or MBO hierarchy.' But I thought that "what the business wants" was synonymous with the "nominal purpose." But you defined the nominal purpose as "the official intentions and plans of the leadership, which define what the purpose of the enterprise is supposed to be." So which is it? Are nominal purpose and "what the business wants" the same thing? If so, you've go to reconcile the two different descriptions. Or are there now three distinct concepts to deal with:
(1) nominal purpose: "the official intentions and plans of the leadership, which define what the purpose of the enterprise is supposed to be."
(2) what the business wants: "a plurality of explicit and implicit and almost certainly conflicting purposes, not just the traditional top-down goal or MBO hierarchy", ie it includes the nominal purpose.
(3) the defacto purpose: which I assume is still synonymous with "what the business does". Or are these different, bringing the count to 4?

If you could please clear up the relationship between "nominal purpose" and "what the business wants", which I assumed were synonymous, I can proceed to formulate a response to your response.


Richard Veryard said...

Thanks Nick, let me try again.

In my mind, there is never a single unified answer to "What The Business Wants". I use the term as a shorthand way of referring not to a concept but to a viewpoint or perspective from which the dialectic plurality of purposes can be viewed and understood - not only nominal purposes but also conscious and unconscious deviations from nominal purposes.

In terms of architectural practice, an architect may identify a number of nominal purposes and defacto purposes, and then needs an architectural viewpoint that helps her to understand the relationships between them. I'm using the label "What The Business Wants" to refer both to this viewpoint and to the general topic area, and I don't mean to imply that all the purposes can be aggregated into a single complex object called "What The Business Wants".

We also need to be careful not to take Stafford Beer's POSIWID slogan too literally. I don't interpret this to mean that the defacto purpose is the same as the behaviour of the organization, simply that it can be inferred from the behaviour. Sometimes the defacto purposes can seem pretty obvious to an observer who knows where to look, especially if she can view the organization over a period of time rather than a single snapshot, but it is always an act of interpretation.

Likewise, "What The Business Does" and all the others in my schema are not concepts but viewpoints. Maybe I need to insert the word "viewpoint" everywhere to avoid confusion and category error.