Does specialisation lead to bad architecture?
Just how much damage is the cult of specialisation doing to enterprise-architecture?
We’ve struggled for years with the problem that the domain-specific specialisation of enterprise-wide IT architecture has portrayed itself ‘as’ enterprise-architecture – causing serious difficulties for anyone who does need to work across a true whole-of-enterprise scope. Yet this same theme came up for me in several other ways this week – and it seems worth taking note of these various cross-currents, because they all seem to point the same way.
One was an article by Microsoft enterprise-architect Nick Malik, on ‘Enjoying the BPM 2010 Conference‘ and discussing business-process management [BPM] and the ‘democratisation’ of business-processes:
The keynote on the first morning, from Phil Gilbert of IBM (formerly of Lombardi) makes the case … that we will see the democratization of business process management and the disintermediation of the “experts.”
The notion of democratization is interesting to me. I look forward to that possibility. To be honest, I don’t think we are all that close, but my mind is open. BPM is a highly specific field, requiring considerable training and experience. The development of layers of indirection necessary to truly hide that level of complexity is not yet in evidence. I suspect that the abstractions will be leaky, at least for a long time. Perhaps with the development of more “plug and play” patterns, we can empower average business people to get value out of working with the tools directly. Not sure.
In other words, specialisation is being viewed as ‘the solution’, when it’s clear that it’s in fact fast becoming a key contributing factor to the problems faced in current BPM. Following from that I had a great Twitter-discussion with Thierry de Baillon about the usual errors in current BPM paradigms – particularly the dangers of IT-centrism to which Nick seems to allude above:
- tdebaillon: @tetradian @nickmalik Automate them, so we won’t have to deal with them any more…
- tetradian: @tdebaillon re “Automate them”, I presume you’re being sarcastic? 🙂 (because misplaced automation is a core source of BPM problems…)
- tdebaillon: @tetradian Sure I am 😉 BPM would represent a great way to improve businesses… if only humans were machines.
- tetradian: @tdebaillon “Sure I am” (I breathe sigh of relief 🙂 ) – to me BPM should *include* people – IT-centrism is the problem, not BPM itself
- tdebaillon: @tetradian Should.. yes, but I am afraid that this view is irreconcilable with what processes are (RT @michaelido: @jhagel: “60-80% of headcount within large organizations is focused on handling of exceptions” #e2conf )
- tetradian: @tdebaillon ‘irreconcilable’ is true only for circular-reasoning of BPM=automation=BPM – e.g. see @sig on ‘Barely Repeatable Processes’ http://thingamy.com
(Sigurd Rinde’s ‘Thingamy’ is one of the very few process-automation packages that’s designed around the way the people work, rather than Taylorist assumptions about how to force people to behave like machines… – strongly recommended for anyone involved in BPM, if you don’t already know it.)
The real point here is the role of the generalist, to link all of the specialist domains together – which requires a very different type of skill, broad rather than deep, but able to translate between the separate worlds of each domain, and also to know which specialist to turn to at each point. Without those generalist cross-links, each domain will usually believe that its own small subset ‘is’ the whole of the context – with the dire results that we see so often, for example, in IT-centric ‘enterprise’-architecture.
But likewise in medicine. Both my parents were general-practitioners (‘family doctors’, in US parlance), and the British Medical Journal [BMJ] still arrives on the doorstep here every week. Serendipitously, there’s an opinion-piece by Des Spence in the current issue, asking whether specialisation is leading to bad medicine [cite: BMJ 2010;341:c4903 – most of the article is behind the BMJ’s paywall, unfortunately]:
“You’re too good to be a general practitioner,” someone once told me. I never knew whether this statement was a slight or a compliment. … But generalism is in decline, with the ascent of the specialists. Gone is the widely experienced general physician, and general surgeons are replaced by an ever expanding list of “ologists” who now seem to be almost single cell specialists.
This drive to specialism is mirrored across all the allied medical professions. … Why has this happened? The primary driver has been the attempt to improve the technical aspects of medical care; most of medicine, however, is not technical. There are secondary drivers too: generalism has a low status, there is more money in specialising, and modern society has come to venerate the specialist, a proxy for “better”.
We are passing the tipping point: increasing specialisation is harming care. … The time has come for an international moratorium and non-proliferation of medical specialisation. We are undermining the confidence and position of the generalist, and soon there will be no one left good enough to call a generalist.
Like medicine, architecture is a discipline that relies almost entirely on generalism; and here too we see exactly the same drivers as described above for medicine. To paraphrase Des Spence above, yes, there is a great need to improve the technical aspects of architectures; yet most of architecture, however, is not technical. It’s much more about people – how real people interact with the real context to make real choices: technical matters are important, of course, but they’re not what the architecture is actually about.
And as I know to my cost, generalism still has far too low a status in many people’s eyes. Years ago I used to find myself frequently coming second in contractor-interviews, because I didn’t have quite the specialist knowledge that the ‘successful’ candidate could display; and frequently I found myself being called back to do the same nominal role a few months later, when they’d discovered that actual need ran across multiple domains, of which the ‘winning’ specialist could only work in one small subset.
(Interestingly, one reason why the ‘small countries’ seem to be so far advanced in enterprise-architecture is that we simply do not have enough people to enable anyone to become too much of a specialist: the technical pool is so small – relative to ‘big countries’ such as the UK, Germany, the US, or, now, India or China – that we were forced to become become generalists, whether we wanted to or not. Back when I was doing code, I used to reckon on having to learn at least two or three new programming languages every year; web-development meant that we had to switch mental ‘hats’ from user-experience to SQL databases to server-side versus client-side trade-offs to network-routers and everything in between. By contrast, in the ‘big countries’ most roles seem to involve at most a couple of those layers: doing any more than that means that you gain the title of ‘architect’, but the pay-rate goes down. Bizarre…)
And Gartner’s Mike Rollings brought up much the same theme around misplaced specialisation, again drawing on his own family background to compare the enterprise-architect to the mediaeval barber:
My father was a barber but he was a specialist focused on grooming. Back in medieval days you could go to a barber for just about anything. You could receive a haircut, a shave, a blood letting, a tooth extraction, surgery… the barber could do it all.
… I’m sure barbers fought for a long time to keep surgery, and tooth extraction as part of the trade. Factions must have formed around surgery and barbering. Barbering methodologies each proclaiming they were the true practice. It is similar to conversations about enterprise architecture and how the IT industry discusses the role of an enterprise architect.
We now have many different types of hairstylists, surgeons, and dentists… I wonder how many others think history will repeat itself and distribute various aspects of the EA discipline across many business roles and professions?
To me another brilliant if somewhat poignant illustration of generalism in one of its highest forms is in the BBC documentary Spitfire Women [UK only, until Tuesday 21 Sept 2010]. It describes the wartime role of the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary – the ferry-pilots who delivered all types of aircraft from the factories to the front-line airfields, usually alone, often in appalling weather, at a maximum altitude of 2000ft, with no radio and no modern-day navigation-aids. But the key point here is “all types of aircraft”: in some cases they might deliver a simple single-engined trainer in the morning, go back for a four-engined Lancaster bomber in the early afternoon, and in the evening “the greatest aviation prize of all”, an ultra-high-performance Spitfire. All in one day’s work. All of it solo. With only a half-sized ring-binder stuffed down the side of a boot as a guide to the different flying-characteristics and constraints of all the different types. One woman casually mentioned that over last four years of the war she’d flown seventy-six different aircraft-types: few regular wartime pilots would fly even a tenth of that number. The skill-levels that that work would demand were immense: and yet throughout that whole period they struggled to receive appropriate recognition or appropriate pay. Some of that, yes, was due to the entrenched sexism of the time; but I suspect the equally entrenched denigration of the generalist played its part too.
Which brings us back to the present-day, and enterprise-architecture and other architectures. Which depend on the somewhat strange skills of the generalist. Are we at risk, as Des Spence says above about medicine, that “we are undermining the confidence and position of the generalist, and soon there will be no one left good enough to call a generalist”? – because if that happens, we’ll have no viable architectures left…
The IT-centric obsessions of the past couple of decades have been bad enough for enterprise-architecture; but if we’re not careful, the cult of the specialist will kill architecture entirely. As generalists we need to make it clear that, without us, the specialists could deliver almost nothing that is of practical use; that without us, everything would fall apart – literally.
It’s time to stand our ground: time to put the specialists back into their preferred pigeon-holes, and reclaim enterprise-architecture as our own.