Saturday, March 30, 2013

Three Notions of Maturity

Many enterprise architecture frameworks contain some notion of maturity, usually with some kind of nod in the direction of the SEI CMMI maturity model. I'm puzzled about this, because these notions of maturity don't much resemble the SEI's notion and sometimes have a completely different set of levels.

The SEI has produced several different maturity models, but they are all presented in terms of the maturity of capability or process - doing the right things right according to a standardized schema of What The Right Things Are. Applying a process-oriented notion of maturity to EA can only really refer to maturity of the EA process. But I think it is much more relevant to think about EA maturity of the organization as a whole, which calls for an outcome-oriented notion of maturity (perhaps defined in terms of some kind of "alignment") that is closer to Richard Nolan's Stages of Growth model, where maturity is seen as a state of perfect alignment between the business and its information systems. (I know Nolan originally formulated his ideas in terms of IT, but then so did lots of people in the 1980s including Zachman.)

Maturity can also be defined in terms of an alignment between espoused theory (what you think you are supposed to be doing) and theory-in-use (what you are actually doing). Obviously this kind of alignment is not restricted to IT. Maturity doesn't just mean being better at achieving your goals, it also means having more realistic goals in the first place. Some people might think that innovation feeds upon the unbounded vision and ambition of the immature, and that too much maturity (in this sense) could just result in negativity and middle-aged stagnation. See my note on EA Archetypes (EA-as-visionary, EA-as-realist).

Meanwhile, some enterprise architecture frameworks contain notions of maturity that are defined not in terms of process but in terms of knowledge. At the Unicom EA Forum on 21st March 2013, Kevin Smith presented his new PETF framework for Enterprise Transformation, whose four levels of maturity are based on the Four Stages of Competence.

  1. Unconsciously incompetent
  2. Consciously incompetent
  3. Consciously competent
  4. Unconsciously competent

Thus the highest level of maturity is where the knowledge has been internalized. I think this notion of maturity looks much closer to Nonaka's SECI model or Boisot's I-Space, which both contain notions of internalization. I-Space also contains the insight that "intellectual property" doesn't last for ever, because all useful knowledge eventually becomes public knowledge. Competence relative to one's competitors is always based on proprietary knowledge, while knowledge that is in the public domain cannot form the basis of competitive advantage.

Meanwhile I'm uncomfortable with the notion of unconscious competence for another reason: in a dynamic world it can quickly develop into complacency and arrogance. Whatever happened to continuous learning and improvement?

In order to maintain competitive advantage, both SECI and I-Space are essentially cyclic models, so that one can cycle back from level 4 (unconscious competence) to level 1 (unconscious incompetence). In my summary last week, I invoked the Black-Belt-to-White-Belt metaphor: even the most experienced black belt needs to return to the basics, needs humility and the desire to learn, needs to always think like a beginner rather than strutting around arrogantly like an expert. Obviously there are circumstances in which an enterprise may need to cycle round from competence to incompetence, before attaining a higher level of competence. Sometimes transformation must take an enterprise out of its comfort zone.

Finally, I wonder whether "maturity" is the right word at all. It is sometimes argued that different levels of maturity are suitable for different organizations, which is basically a form of contingency theory. In other words, some organizations never need to be fully mature.

Instead of maturity, I prefer a notion of excellence that includes (1) selecting the appropriate approach for a particular situation/context, and then (2) carrying out this approach both effectively and cost-effectively. I think this notion of excellence is supported by business excellence frameworks such as Baldrige and the European Quality Award. These frameworks don't say HOW you should do anything, merely that you should know WHAT you are doing, and WHY, and WHETHER it is working, and that you should be constantly striving to improve those things that matter most. Hopefully this gets around the innovation/maturity paradox I mentioned earlier.

Related post: From Enabling Prejudices to Sedimented Principles (March 2013)

Thanks to Len Fehskens (in comments below) for pointing out the original source of the Four Stages of Competence.

Post last updated 31 August 2018


Anonymous said...

Richard - I mostly agree with your observations here. Two comments.

The conscious/unconscious competence/incompetence model is not orginal with Kevin; it's from the work of Noel Burch at Gordon Training International. See

Regarding whether "maturity" is the right word, you propose "excellence". I think excellence still implies a value judgement. My problem with "maturity" is that no one wants to be "immature", so organizations may aspire to competences that they don't need in pursuit of "maturity". Excellence sings a similar siren song, though not as overtly. I suggest that it is not "maturity" or "excellence" that organizations should pursue, but "fitness for purpose". One can, and in fact I will, argue that any effort expended on achieving more than is required by a given situation is superfluous, if not wasted, effort. This of course requires that one know what is necessary and sufficient, and I have long believed that achieving this understanding is at the core of what architecture is about.


Richard Veryard said...

Thanks Len

My notion of excellence is driven by a sense of purpose and context and value-for-money. I believe this is the notion of excellence that is embedded in frameworks such as Baldrige and EFQM. However, I accept that many people interpret the word excellence to mean some kind of irrelevant vanity project.

The word Quality suffers from the same ambiguity - are we talking about fitness for purpose, or quality for its own sake.

There is indeed a value judgement implied by these words, which includes a strong belief in striving for continuous improvement, guided by purpose and context. Whereas notions of maturity based on unconscious competence seems to suggest that an individual or organization can reach a mature state in which further improvement and innovation is no longer required. To my mind, unconscious competence looks suspiciously like middle-aged complacency.

I welcome suggestions for alternative ways of talking about what I'm calling excellence.

Len Fehskens said...

Richard -- good on you; you've made me question my concept of "excellence". I understand yours, and I think there's more than a little congruence with what I mean by "fitness for purpose". Examining what excellence connotes for me, I realized that I think of it as implying being well out on the "good" tail of the distribution of performance. This is clearly broken in at least the sense that excellence is multidimensional and cannot be ranked on a single linear scale.

I think the question we're ultimately considering is the value of performance (or capability of performance) beyond that necessary and sufficient for achieving the desired results. Do we pursue (and "stockpile" or "bank" such additional capability) in anticipation of its need, or for its own sake? Or do we develop a capability for creating such additional capability "on-demand"?

I don't think I've addressed your request for alternative ways to talk about what you call excellence, but this question of the value of "unnecessary competence" is what vexes me at the moment.


Richard Veryard said...

Thanks Len

You accept that excellence can be multidimensional, but then surely desire (as in "the desired results") is also multidimensional. There are different desires with different timescales and modalities. Within an organization, there may be desire for innovation and change, desire for long-term development and growth, as well as desire for immediate gratification and short-term profit. What is necessary and sufficient for short-term profit may not be sufficient for longer-term viability.

I am troubled by your notion of "unnecessary competence", because it suggests an orderly and predictable world. Whereas in our chaotic world, things can go from irrelevant to revolutionary without missing a beat.

When Steve Jobs dropped out of college, he acquired some quite unnecessary competence in calligraphy. Neither he nor anyone else knew where this competence would lead. As he said later,

you can't connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards