Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Enterprise as a ... System

Notwithstanding the earnest way some people use the phrase "enterprise-as-a-system", I don't see any great significance in regarding an enterprise or organization as a system.

Indeed, given the very broad way people commonly use the word "system", it is difficult to think of anyway to regard an enterprise other than as some kind of system. A machine or complicated technological assembly is a system; a human activity or social unit is a system; an abstract legal or procedural process is a system. All of the chapters in Gareth Morgan's book Images of Organization represent organizations as different kinds of system. And even if we don't regard an enterprise as quite the same as an organization, what could an enterprise possibly be, from anyone's perspective, other than some kind of system?

And many popular architecture frameworks claim to regard an enterprise as a system. For example
  • TOGAF considers the enterprise as a system (TOGAF9, Chapter 2
  • Enterprise architecture structures the business planning into an integrated framework that regards the enterprise as a system or system of systems. (TOGAF9 Chapter 6)

Elsewhere in TOGAF however, as well as in ArchiMate, we can find reference to systems OR organizations, which suggests that they do not regard the enterprise as a system.

Some people claim to regard the enterprise as a system, and then offer a layered schema with System Layer near the bottom. This represents a shift in the use of the word "system".

However, when people use the phrase "enterprise-as-a-system", they may well have a particular kind of system in mind. Here are some examples.

Enterprise as a sociotechnical system

Enterprise as a socio-cultural—techno-economic system

Enterprise as a human activity system

Enterprise as a self-organizing system

Enterprise as an open or closed system

Clearly it is the adjective that helps to make this phrase meaningful.

See also
Alan Hakimi, Addressing the Multi-Dimensionality Challenge on Thinking of The Enterprise as a System (Feb 2013)

Linked-In Discussion Enterprises *NOT AS* Systems (April 2013 onwards)


Peter Murchland said...

Whilst whole-heartedly agreeing with your main premise, a couple of thoughts about the value of enterprise-as-a-system:

a) the expression may cause the reader to think about the enterprise (which they may not normally be inclined to do)
b) the expression may cause the reader to think about the enterprise in relationship to its environment and in relationship to how it is organised
c) the expression may cause the reader to consider an enterprise in terms of different structural perspectives - inputs, outputs, processes, etc that they naturally attribute to system and, for whatever reason, do not ordinarily and innately attribute to enterprise

ie. not all people think in terms of enterprises or in terms of systems)

Richard Veryard said...

As Peter points out, the expression "enterprise as a system" may help people to shift attention. It therefore has some didactic or rhetorical value. But once one has learned to see an enterprise as a system, one no longer needs it.

As Wittgenstein wrote:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them... He must so to speak throw away the ladder...