The no-plan Plan: architecture as story

Next part on that expansion on my ‘no-plan Plan‘, with more detail on the theme about ‘architecture as story’.

If you’ve been watching this blog for a while, you’ll know that this theme already goes back a few years, such as with the much-referenced post ‘The enterprise is the story‘. But I’ll admit that I was somewhat floundering for an anchor that would link it more solidly into enterprise-architecture, until I came across Matthew Frederick’s ‘two points of view‘:

Two points of view on architecture

ARCHITECTURE IS AN EXERCISE IN TRUTH. A proper building is responsible to universal knowledge and is wholly honest in the expression of its functions and materials.

ARCHITECTURE IS AN EXERCISE IN NARRATIVE. Architecture is a vehicle for the telling of stories, a canvas for relaying societal myths, a stage for the theater of everyday life.

Frederick there is talking about the architecture of buildings, yet exactly the same principles also apply in enterprise-architectures.

‘Classic’ EA is almost entirely centred around the ‘exercise in truth’ view. In its own way, it is about ‘truth’: it’s all about structure, function, process – yet so much so that people barely enter the picture at, other than perhaps as literally-faceless ‘users’ in a use-case. And almost all of the existing EA toolsets reflect that orientation towards rigour and structure – so much so that, in an all too literal sense, it’s often hard to get at the story behind it. Yes, it’s a structure. Very pretty. Very impressive. Very precise. And, uh, so what?

The way we’d answer any ‘so what?’ is almost always through some kind of story. Stories provide meaning, stories are engaging, stories give people a reason to engage in the enterprise, its activities, its aims. Stories describe the ‘why’ of decisions, alongside the ‘how’ and ‘with-what’ of how these decisions are expressed and enacted in real-world practice. In a truly literal sense, the stories are the enterprise – and hence right at the core of the architecture of that enterprise. Hence the very real importance of this other view, ‘an exercise in narrative’.

Yet at present there’s almost no support for any of that ‘narrative’-view, either in existing EA frameworks or in the current generation of EA toolsets. DoDAF and MoDAF do call for a visual ‘OV-1’ overview-diagram of the context of an architecture, but that’s about it – and I don’t know of any EA toolset that links regions of that graphic into actual architecture-repository entities, to act as the high-level anchor for an architecture. And most toolsets still seem to follow the notation-standards so slavishly that there’s usually no way to attach graphics or photos to an entity, to create an architecturally-rigorous diagram that would make sense to anyone other than an architect.

And, literally, where are the stories? Equally literally, where is the human voice in this? To quote the Cluetrain Manifesto:

Markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.

Where is that voice in our architecture, or in anything that our architecture describes? It matters – and hence its absence matters too. A lot: not least because most current architecture-diagrams are an abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction, and without the human story, the human voice, to anchor its place and time and purpose, that kind of diagram is unlikely to retain much meaning for long. We need the story in there – just as much as we need the formal descriptions of function, data, structure and so on.

Apologies, I’m ranting again… but you’ll know what I mean about this, I think? – that architecture isn’t architecture unless it includes both structure and story, two different yet complementary views brought into balance, somewhat as TS Eliot put it, quoting an earlier age:

The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde.

So how about it, folks? Let’s build a new, more balanced approach to enterprise-architecture, one that does include appropriate space for the human story too. Let’s aim for a new kind of EA toolset, where each entity is its own wiki-page, can incorporate the literal human voice via audio-capture, video, photographs, sketches, drawings, yet all of it still linked in to the formal rigour and structure. Let’s find a way to merge narrative-tools such as Anecdote‘s Zahmoo or Cynthia Kurtz‘s Rakontu into our everyday EA-practice, and link those into our toolsets as well. An interesting challenge, I think?

Anyway, yes, whatever happens, it’s clear that this overall theme of ‘the enterprise as story’ is going to be important here. Watch This Space For Next-Whenever’s Thrilling Instalment? 🙂

[Update: Not clever: there’s a whole bunch of key, essential, sub-themes here that I brilliantly failed to mention above… 😐 There’s Verna Allee’s work on value-networks, for example, or Chris Potts’ comments on ‘the architecture of experience’, community-of-practice and community-of-interest, and the whole array of issues around service-design, collaboration-design, communication, social-business, social-media, creativity, culture, leadership and… – well, that list goes on and on and on.

In other words, if it relates to people and architecture, and people in architecture – whatever form that architecture may take within the enterprise – then yes, it belongs along with this theme here. And everywhere else, too. Which is the whole point, of course. 🙂 ]

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4 comments on “The no-plan Plan: architecture as story
  1. Stephen says:

    There are many viewpoints in Enterprise Architecture e.g. Zachman, TOGAF and then the conceptual, logical and physical ones. Perhaps we do spend too much time being logical and not enough time being conceptual and/or physical. I quite liked an more conceptual example from a Forester discussion on IT Strategy that I think you might also have seen: http://www.motive8.co.nz/ and like you say, technology opportunities in terms of new media (Picture and video) abound. The modern recruit no longer has two years to learn a new organisation and communicating the why, what and the how quickly and succinctly via image and story is a way to do that. We need to make EA (and other disciplines) more accessible, less of a black art, and no longer the land of the one eyed king? Of course, logical views are needed, but perhaps this aspect has been over emphasised in the last 20 years for a number of reasons?

    • Tom G says:

      Stephen – re conceptual, logical, physical: I’d argue that to understand a whole architecture, we need to be able to move between all of the layers of abstraction – not just those central three.

      It struck me just now that the classic ‘Five Whys’ technique should be able to lift us all the way from the ‘Now’-point (row-5/row-6 boundary) right up to the Vision (row-0), because each ‘Why’ should lift us one level of abstraction at a time. Conversely, we need a ‘Five Hows’ to take us back down from Vision to Now, one jump at a time, by adding the described extra level of detail at each step.

      And each of those jumps, in each direction, is also in itself a story – for which, as you say, there are now a lot more options to describe those stories, such as new media (picture, video) and new technologies (think Prezi’s infinite-zoom). There’s a lot that the toolset vendors could do to help us in this: I just wish they would, that’s all… Sigh…

      Thanks for the pointer to Motive8 – will follow that up.

      One of the (unfortunate?) attractions of the logical-layer is that it’s, well, logical. We can give ourselves the comforting illusion there that we can seemingly solve every problem in isolation from everything else. We don’t have to deal with any of the complexities of the conceptual-layer, which almost invariably demand that we cross the whole Zachman space; we don’t have to deal with messy kludges and trade-offs that always come up in the physical-layer; instead, it’s all just nice and logic and clean and consistent and conveniently and satisfying idealised. No surprise there’s been an over-emphasis there for the past 20 years, as you put it. Sigh… 😐

  2. Stephen says:

    Tom, just as an addendum on this in terms of looking at new ways of telling a story.

    I thought I would mention RSA Animate as another example of visual storytelling.

    http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/08/23/rsa-animate-21st-century-enlightenment/

    If anyone has any further examples it would be good to share them.

    • Tom G says:

      Stephen – yeah, RSA Animate is a wonderful example of the kind of ‘production-values’ we need for this. The catch, of course, is that it requires huge amounts of visual-thinking and visual-presentation skill – which I know I don’t have, for certain. 😐

      As in my reply to your previous comment, something like Prezi might offer some great possibilities, in a perhaps more accessible way – particularly if coupled to a gesture-style user-interface/user-experience as on most current tablets. A lot of research and experimentation on visualisation and interfaces needed in the near future, I think?

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