Monday, August 06, 2012

Resistance to Architecture

A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting to discuss the UK National Health Service reforms. One of the speakers, a senior NHS administrator, used the word "architecture" in her presentation. Twice. Clearly referring to business/organizational architecture rather than physical architecture.

Encouraged by this, a couple of us approached her afterwards and asked her what kind of architectural work was going on, but we were treated with diplomatic hostility. (She didn't want to talk to us, and clearly wanted to escape as quickly as possible.) As far as we could make out, what she had meant by architecture was that she had some complicated organizational design in her head, but she definitely wasn't going to take the political risk of making this design clear to anyone else.

There may well be some proper business architecture work going on around the NHS reforms, but we have been looking for a while and haven't found much yet. (Which is a bit worrying, given the scale of the structural change that is underway.) If you know of anything I'd be delighted to hear from you.

There have perhaps always been individuals within large organizations who see some personal political advantage in maintaining obscure and complicated organizations that only they can understand and manipulate, and these individuals are probably always going to see good business architecture as a threat. But is there any reason why an organization as a whole should resist business architecture? Are there some organizations where that kind of small-p-political approach to management is so deeply ingrained in the culture that good business architecture is incompatible?

In his book, The Systems Approach and Its Enemies, C West Churchman identified four enemies of the systems approach: Politics, Ethics and Morality (the dominance of the "Big Idea"), Religion (irrational attachment to traditional forms), and Aesthetics (intuition, irrational optimism). Although as Churchman himself acknowledges, the notion of "enemy" is itself problematic from a systems perspective.

If politics may be one source of resistance to business architecture within the NHS, another source may be the "Big Idea", also known as "Principles". One of the reasons I am less enthusiastic about principles than many of my fellow architects is that I often see principles being used not as a starting point for hard work but as a substitute for it. In the public sector, we often see broad principles such as Choice or Competition being bandied about, with no serious attempt to work out how these so-called principles might work in practice. And if the structure and behaviour of the NHS is completely determined by these abstract principles, as some would have us believe, then there is obviously no point wasting time getting business architects involved. See my post On the misuse of general principles (Jan 2012).

A third reason for steering clear of business architecture might be because everyone believes that the fundamental structural problems are so deeply embedded in existing institutions that there is no point hiring business architects who will merely tell us what we already know. So we go on tinkering with the details, shifting responsibility for commissioning from one bunch of bureaucrats to another bunch of bureaucrats, but not making any real inroads into the institutional separations between primary and secondary care, or between healthcare and social care.

The final reason for thinking that business architecture is unnecessary is because of the Faustian pact with senior staff. The woman I heard talking recently presents an attractive and optimistic vision of transformation, plausible to nearly everyone except a few politically motivated snipers. And of course business architects. No wonder they regard us as the enemy.

See also The Illusion of Architecture (September 2012)

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