Friday, November 30, 2012

On the Cultural-Linguistic Turn

A number of bloggers have talked about the central importance of story-telling and sense-making in the architect's craft. So I wanted to highlight an interesting piece about Rowan Williams in the Guardian recently, with possible relevance to the practice of enterprise architecture and systems thinking.

As an experiment, I have taken some of Williams' statements about Christianity, and reworded them so that they refer instead to enterprise architecture and systems thinking.

1. Instead of trying to argue that [enterprise architecture] is true, it is important to see [enterprise architecture] as a cultural tradition. Meaning is constructed through cultural practices. [Enterprise architecture] is the place where a very specific form of meaning is made, shared, passed on.

2. The question of what we believe is secondary to the question of what we do, what forms of symbolic communication we participate in, what cultural language we speak.

3. On what grounds do [enterprise architects] affirm principles? Is it that [systems theory] dispenses a few non-negotiable rules? No, says Williams, the legal paradigm is inadequate; it doesn't help us through the inevitable grey areas. The [architect] should approach moral and ethical questions by means of communication, sign-making. The [engineering] impulse invites us to semiotic anarchism: casual [engineering] hints at huge meanings that we don't mean; it is not safely "meaningless", but is meaning-shaking. A disciplined approach to [architecture and engineering] (which does not deny but affirms its goodness) is perhaps the loudest communicative tool available to us.

When an architect chooses to label something as a "silo" or "legacy", or uses words like "integrated" and "standardized", these may not always be objectively verifiable categories but subjective judgements, around which the architect may then weave an appropriate story.

Marcel Derosier, Architect as Anthropologist: Leveraging Cultural Knowledge to Foster Collaboration (pdf) (Saturn 2012, via SEI)

Tom Graves, The Enterprise is the Story (Integrated EA Conference, March 2012, via Slideshare)

Theo Hobson, Rowan Williams got it right about ritual (Guardian, 31 October 2012)


Adrian Grigoriu said...

You can substitute with any domain you like and it would still appear equally sensible.
This is the kind of loose talk employed by tarot readers... that seems to make sense but makes none whatsoever.

Richard Veryard said...

Thanks for your comment, Adrian.

Translating something from one domain to another, or creating a mashup between two domains, is not itself a reliable source of knowledge or truth, but it can often stimulate new ideas and frames of thought, which may then help to develop new knowledge. Whether the mashed-up statements in my blog make sense or not depends solely on whether they lead to useful understanding of enterprise architecture, and not on pursuing the analogy with Christianity any further.

I think the same is true for your analogy with tarot readers. I agree there is a great deal of loose and ungrounded talk in the enterprise architecture world, but whether it is helpful for you to dismiss unfamiliar ideas in this way will depend on how you imagine knowledge develops within the enterprise architecture domain.