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’

(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.

8 Comments on “Does specialisation lead to bad architecture?

  1. The specialists attitude has been propogated by the management consulting industry for decades. It served their “we’re different and better” approach to making sales.

    With the change in business dynamics, specialization is still needed but not as much as a generalist. Generalists are broader thinkers and explorers. Looking at a wider terraine to find the next path.

    What many of us are seeing is the specialist feeling the pressure to understand a wider range of skills. Yet, the pressure is threatening the path they chose…feeling the path of what got them to be specialist isn’t going to keep them employeed or make a difference in the future.

    The best of both worlds is for the specialist to remain a specialist (if that is their current comfort zone) BUT to accept the need for the generalist as a collaboration. The Generalist will find the path for the future of the enterprise. The specilist will build the roa

  2. (oops…hit the return key by accident).

    The specialist will build the road to enable a smoother traveling experience.

    The specialists need to broaden their exposure to new things as well. Industries need to explore other industries to find new ways to travel in the future. An IT specialist in the financial industry will be very helpful to those processing transactions for hospitals. The IT healthcare specialist will be helpful to the financial industry in processing multiple types of data. Both can learn from each other…yet…the way the world is working currently, an IT specialist from one industry is denied entry into the other. This is a disservice to the different industries and will limit the industries success in the near future.

    The generalist sees the changes (and the disservice mentioned above). The generalist will identify the specific skills (without industry bias) that will help the specialist and the enterprise in the future. Now, if only the specialist would see that the generalist is to their benefit.

  3. Tom, I found it interesting that you used my post as an example regarding specialization (which you consider detrimental), but in the same post refer to the role of the general practitioner as the reason we need generalists. In my post, the medieval barber included the role of the medical practitioner as one of many hats. Your argument seems to support the premise that further specialization will occur as it did for the barber. Specialization brought clarity to the role.

    That said, I think the real issue is not about specialization but instead about clarity. The organizational role “enterprise architect” has so many different definititions across organizations that it is impossible to discern what the role is in aggregate. While the EA discipline crosses many boundaries, specialization has already occurred and yet many times they are referred to as the same thing ‘enterprise architect’.

  4. Pat – good points, perhaps especially about “the specialist from one industry is denied entry into the other”. The problem there is that increased specialisation leads to further fragmentation, to the point where no-one knows or understands – or, for that matter, trusts – what anyone else is doing. That way Babel lies… a rather useful warning from biblical tradition, I think?

    Nick – greatly appreciated: coming from you, with your knowledge and experience that means a lot indeed. In turn, Thank you.

    Mike – oops: I hope I haven’t offended you or your memory of your father here, and if so, I do profoundly apologise. 🙁

    If we look at the history, though, the mediaeval barber was the general-practitioner as far as the town populace would have been concerned: the first point of call before you went to the ‘official’ doctor (if you could afford it). The barber’s striped pole is a last remnant of that historical role: the blue blood and the red spiralling down the arm. ‘Doctor’ literally means ‘teacher’, and in the mediaeval period that’s what most of them were – theorists rather than practitioners. What we think of as modern medicine comes much, much later – not until the early 17th century at the earliest, and in most places more like the 19th century or later.

    I don’t consider specialists detrimental at all: specialism is an absolute essential down at the detail-level of implementation. Yet we need something to link all of those depth-specialisms together, to combine the advantages of depth (e.g. precision, care, certainty) with the advantages of breadth (e.g. integration, unity). Yet when all of the rewards go to the specialists, and the generalists are despised (“fallen off Moran’s ladder”, with no future career-prospects at all, was how general-practitioners were described after the founding of Britain’s hospital-centric National Health Service in the late 1940s), who would want to be a generalist? The result is what we see all around us: smaller and smaller specialisms, with little or nothing to hold them together. Not wise…

    Generalism is far more than that nasty put-down about “jack of all trades and master of none”. It is a specialism in its own right: the specialist discipline of being able to link across fields, translate, connect, communicate, learn fast. It demands an order of skill far beyond mere specialist ‘mastery’, and getting it takes time – lots of it – which is why successful architects will usually have two or three decades of experience behind them, and many different fields and, preferably, different industries.

    So yes, whilst I do take your point about clarity, perhaps the most important point about clarity of roles in architecture is this:

    • — specialists tackle depth, scale, detail-complication
    • — generalists tackle breadth, scope, social-complexity
    • — in theory, each can do the others’ job: but neither is likely to do it well, especially where both scope and scale increase

    What we currently have in most ‘enterprise’-architecture is a bunch of IT-specialists either pretending that their own specialism ‘is’ the whole of the architecture (and enterprise, even), or trying to tell business-generalists how to do their job. Neither approach is likely to yield good results… On the other side – and this is where we connect with your point about the history of the barber – we sometimes start off with generalists trying to do implementation (such as in a start-up, for example) – but coming to grief when their knowledge of a given specialism is insufficient to meet the need (the classic problems of increasing scale, for example). That doesn’t work well either… Somehow we need to get the balance right: and the ‘right’ balance changes continuously with scope and scale and context.

    My real point – and I think this was Des Spence’s point too, in his BMJ piece – is that at present that balance is completely out of whack. An over-emphasis on specialism is understandable, even acceptable, when the focus is on the end-detail – and at the point of action, it is usually the specialist’s attention to detail that delivers the desired end-result. But when the scope grows wider – and in a globalised economy, we definitely dealing with a very wide scope – there’s no way that the specialist’s approach will work: we drown in detail, hitting ‘analysis-paralysis’ very quickly indeed. (That’s one of the classic Taylorist traps – and yet very few people in business or elsewhere seem to understand just how serious a trap that is.) The only way out of that impasse is the generalist’s recursive sense of the whole, a holographic view in which the pattern of the whole can be seen within every point. But when only the specialist is lauded, and the generalist despised, who wants to take on that latter role?

    That’s why we need clarity on roles: an explicit reclamation of the role and status of the generalist, and a firm insistence that the specialists need to back off, and return to the domains from whence they came. (And yes, that does indeed include all those IT-architects currently pretending to be ‘enterprise’-architects: we’ve now reached the point where it needs to be made clear that any IT-architect making such a claim will face civil and/or criminal charges under the legislation around illegal ‘passing-off’ and misrepresentation. An enterprise is primarily about people: and people are not IT or machines, no matter how much many businesses try to treat them as such…)

    So there’s my suggestion for clarity in architectural roles: If it’s about detail or implementation-design, it’s a specialist role. If it’s about connection across disparate domains, it’s a generalist role. (In effect, architecture itself is primarily about connections: hence in that sense architecture is always a generalist role.)

    The two types of roles require fundamentally different mindsets, the specialist more analytic, the generalist more holistic: few people can do both of these when unless both scope and scale are small. When both scope and scale are large, we must have both types: which means we usually need different people to do those different roles. Yet when specialists are lauded, they’re easy to find; when generalists are despised, good ones are – unsurprisingly – quite hard to find, because even the best ones will give up when the only alternative to being treated as a second-class specialist is starvation on the streets…

    One final comment on your note above: “The organizational role “enterprise architect” has so many different definititions across organizations that it is impossible to discern what the role is in aggregate. While the EA discipline crosses many boundaries, specialization has already occurred and yet many times they are referred to as the same thing ‘enterprise architect’.” The blunt fact is that most of these are people are not enterprise-architects: they are, at best, domain-architects covering an enterprise-wide scope for their own specific specialism. Which in itself is fine: but it’s not enterprise-architecture. For someone to call themselves an ‘enterprise Siebel-architect’ is fine; but to call themselves a ‘Siebel enterprise-architect’ is not okay, because the moment any technology or domain is mentioned, it’s no longer enterprise-architecture – which means that claiming to be an ‘enterprise-architect’ there is actually illegal under ‘passing-off’ legislation.

    There is only one enterprise-architecture, namely the architecture of the enterprise as enterprise: and the people who work with the respective generalist disciplines at that scope and scale are the only ones that should call themselves ‘enterprise-architects’. We all need to be really clear on that point, because until we can get that blunt fact hammered into the thick skulls of the recruiting-industry – the prime proponents of this insane mislabelling of ‘enterprise-architect’ roles – the ‘enterprise-architecture’ will continue its current slow spiral into irrelevance. Which would be sad – to say the least. ‘Bout all I can say there is “over to you” on that – as a one of Gartner’ senior consultants on EA you have a lot more clout than I have? 🙂

    Hope this helps, anyway – and thanks again for joining in.

  5. Tom, no offense taken. I do believe we are closer together than farther apart.

    I especially like this line in your reply “What we currently have in most ‘enterprise’-architecture is a bunch of IT-specialists either pretending that their own specialism ‘is’ the whole of the architecture (and enterprise, even), or trying to tell business-generalists how to do their job.” However that train has left the station. It will be difficult to get the majority to relinquish the title and it would be even more difficult to get those with other titles (e.g. Business Strategist) who are practicing the EA discipline to change theirs. We just need to embrace it.

    See a related post here:


  6. Mike – thanks again. I’ve seen those two links before, and for the most part strongly agree with what you’ve said there. One point you made in one of the comments seems worth repeating here:

    “If people do not look at EA, BPM, SOA and other similar “lifestyle changes” as a discipline, then they will never achieve systemic behavior change — which is a primary goal.”

    I stronglyagree with this: EA, BPM, SOA etc are distinct disciplines, not ‘products’. Hence the importance of governance and so on, which provide emphasis on ways to enhance that discipline in practice. In many ways it’s not actually about the concrete outcomes at all – they’re just side effects (desirableside-effects, of course! 🙂 ) of the discipline, but are not the aim of the discipline itself. This seems to be something that results-oriented people often struggle to understand: that the results of architecture are outcomes but not aims in their own right. What we’re really after is creating conditions for “systemic behavior change” – because that’s what produces sustainable results over the long-term.

    Great conversation 🙂 – thanks again!

  7. Hmmm. An old bearded colleage of yours said recently Bus Arch will continue to be a commodity for some time. BTW after years of trying to avoid it – I now have the title ‘business architect’. The commodity we work with is a discipline in information reuse, trust and decision support so we do have some way to go.

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