Aliens, anarchists and analysts

A ‘tweet’ on Twitter pointed me to Colin Beveridge’s post ‘Enterprise Aliens‘, on his “Trillion Dollar Bonfire” website. (Colin estimates that over the past few decades at least a trillion dollars have been wasted worldwide on useless corporate IT – hence the website name.) His theme is that for enterprise architects and executives alike it can be useful to view the enterprise as if from the viewpoint of some imaginary alien or Outsider, so as to break free from corporate groupthink. As he says, this has strong precedents in folklore:

Every culture has age-old tales about rulers disguising themselves to pass among their subjects, often learning vital lessons about policy and behaviours that otherwise go unreported.

(One key cultural point is that the unwitting providers of those often painful ‘lessons’ must be protected against punishment for their honesty. Much the same theme is echoed by Oscar Berg’s recent post ‘Management by Listening Around‘ on his “The Content Economy” blog, about the processes, practices and ethics of using social software to ‘listen around’ in anonymous fashion for real-world management review.)

Many other traditional contexts have an explicit role to provide that ‘alien view’ function: the court jester, for example, or the formal appointment of an ecclesiastical lawyer as ‘Devil’s Advocate’ in reviewing the life and works of a proposed candidate for Catholic sainthood. In both those cases, though in different ways, one function of the role is to disrupt the groupthink and the ‘yes-men’ mentality, and, if possible, provide a palatable way to break through wishful thinking and face the more subtle complexities of reality. In short, to be an anarchist in the midst of the wishful groupthink-‘rules’ and regulations of the realm. Enterprise alien as business anarchist.

Which leads to another theme: the roles of analyst and anarchist within enterprise architecture, and within business in general. To use the mediaeval court metaphor, most of the king’s advisers and elders are analysts: they assess best practice from the past, and extrapolate those lessons to the future. The jester’s job is to think sideways, to parody, critique, disrupt – in short, to be an anarchist – and we might note that whilst there may be dozens of elders all jockeying for the prime positions, there’s usually just the one jester. Sure, there’s humour in the act, but often it’s there only to make the critique more palatable, to use self-deprecation to deflect attack: it’s a serious role with serious responsibilities.

The analyst as ‘insider’; the anarchist as ‘outsider’, alien, Other. For each analyst role in business, there’s a matching anarchist whose role is to bring the analysis down to the ground and get real. Compare the the opposing emphases of the roles:

  • causality model
    • business analyst: linear – analysis in terms of assumed rules of derivation
    • business anarchist: non-linear – causal relationships either not identifiable or identifiable only retrospectively (“small pieces loosely joined … always a little bit broken”)
  • temporal focus
    • business analyst: before action (plan) or after action (assessment / analysis)
    • business anarchist: during action (‘the Now’)
  • management model
    • business analyst: top-down, controls for predictability – emphasis on machines or IT
    • business anarchist: bottom-up, direction for inherent uncertainty – emphasis on people
  • scientific analogue
    • business analyst: Newtonian physics as metaphor – mass-markets, large-scale statistics, Taylorist ‘scientific management’
    • business anarchist: chaos-physics as metaphor – ‘market of one’, quantum effects, self-organisation, enterprise as ecosystem
  • systems-development approach
    • business analyst: ‘engineering the enterprise’, Waterfall development
    • business anarchist: emergent systems, Agile development

Perhaps the simplest way to summarise is that the analyst relishes taking things apart, but purports to put them together; whilst the anarchist puts things together to work with the real context in real-time, but is blamed for taking things apart in ways that the analysts don’t expect.

That clash is also clear if we merge those summaries above in Cynefin terms:

  • business analyst: rule-based + abstract time = ‘complicated’ or ‘knowable’ domain
  • business anarchist: non-linear + real-time = ‘chaotic’ domain

…which, in practice, are almost diametric opposites – no wonder there’s a clash. 🙂

Yet a key aim of the enterprise architecture must be to provide a framework in which these inherent differences can be resolved. Too often, for example, I’ve seen examples where every nominal business-process is beautifully documented, but what they describe is not how the work is actually done in practice. Management relies on its analysts, but have no grasp at all of what the foreman or equivalent does to keep things moving along as smoothly as possible in the chaos of real-world practice. Anyone can analyse supermarket checkout queues en-masse – the statistics are easy enough to follow, to give average service-times, mean, standard-deviation and the rest – giving rise to the nice illusion of predictability, control. But in the chaos of real queue-flows, the ‘quick-service’ line can easily end up slower than the main checkouts – which hits hard on customer (dis-)satisfaction, for a start. And when it takes longer to get out of the store than it does to select purchases – as seems to occur more often than not in one of this town’s supermarkets – potential customers soon learn to stay out in droves, whether the prices are good or not: price is not the only measure of perceived value here… But the sources of such business issues are all but invisible in statistical analysis: to see them, and to resolve them in business practice, we need the eye of the Outsider, the alien, the anarchist.

Seems an idea worth exploring further, anyway.

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