Strategic Theme # 4/5: Systems Theory & Systems Thinking

[tl;dr Systems thinking is the ability to look at the whole as well as the parts of any dynamic system, and understand the consequences/impacts of decisions to the whole or those parts. Understanding and applying systems thinking in software-enabled businesses is in everyone’s interest.]

First thing’s first: I am not an expert in systems theory or systems thinking. But I am learning. Many of the ideas resonate with my personal experience and work practices, so I guess I am a Systems Thinker by nature. The corollary of this is that, it seems, not everyone is a Systems Thinker by nature.

Enterprise Architecture is, in essence, a discipline within the general field of systems theory and systems thinking. It attempts to explain or communicate a system from many perspectives, explicitly looking at the whole as well as the parts.

As every enterprise architect knows, it is impossible to communicate all perspectives and viewpoints in a single view…the concept of a ‘thing’ in enterprise architecture can be very amorphous, a bit like Shrödingers Cat, only tangible when you look at it. So meta-models such as ArchiMate and the Zachman Framework have been devised to help architects manage this complexity.

But this post isn’t about enterprise architecture: the fact is, many complex problems faced by businesses today can only be solved by systems thinking across the board. It cannot be left to a solitary group of ‘enterprise architects’ to try to bring everything together. Rather, anybody involved in business change, continuous improvement (kaizen) or strategy setting must be versed in systems thinking. At the very least, it is this understanding that will allow people to know when and why to engage with enterprise architects.

An excellent example of where systems thinking would be particularly useful is in financial services regulatory reform: regulations impact the entire lifecycle, front-to-back, of every financial product. The sheer volume of regulatory change makes it a practical impossibility to address all regulations all the time, while still operating a profitable business in a competitive environment. The temptation to solve known, specific requirements one-by-one is high,  but without systems thinking complexity will creep in and sustainable change becomes a real challenge.

Although I have a lot to learn on systems thinking, I have found the book ‘Thinking in Systems’ by Donella H Meadows to be a very accessible introduction to the subject (recommended by Adrian Cockcroft and as such it is also a strong influence within the DevOps community). I am also seeing some excellent views on the subject coming out of established architecture practitioners such as Avancier and Tetradian – where challenges and frustrations around the conventional IT-centric approach to enterprise architecture are vented and addressed in very informative ways.

The point of this post is to emphasise that systems thinking (which breaks through traditional organisational silos and boundaries) applied across all professions and disciplines is what will help drive success in the future: culturally, it complements the goals of the ‘lean enterprise’ (strategic theme #1).

Many businesses  struggling to maintain profitability in the face of rapid technology innovation, changing markets, increased competition and ever-rising regulatory obligations would, in my view, do well to embark on a program of education on aspects of this topic across their entire workforce. Those that do can reasonably expect to see a significantly greater return on their (technology) investments in the longer term.

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Strategic Theme # 4/5: Systems Theory & Systems Thinking

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