It’s the Way that You Do It

Imagine you have been called in to help ACME Consulting, a business that isn’t performing as well as it might.

Using the standard EA frameworks, you can model how this business is organised, what it’s supposed to do, how the IT is wired up and so on. You can create exquisite architecture artefacts, and analyse them in great depth; everything can look fine on paper, but the organisation may still be dysfunctional. The EA documents are incredibly useful, but they don’t tell the whole story. They probably won’t reveal the causes of the poor customer feedback that have resulted in little repeat business and contract extensions for ACME Consulting; or the demotivation of ACME’s staff, with junior staff complaining of a lack of career progression, while the seniors leave in their droves.

The source of problems such as these lies deep within the culture of the company, that is, the collective values, assumptions, attitudes and behaviours of the people who work there; but like the human psyches that produce it, the culture is not easy to model.

I am fascinated by organisational culture. Great cultural attributes can define an organisation, and shape its outlook and activities in a positive way; they can strengthen teams and promote ethical, altruistic and flexible working. Conversely, bad cultural attributes can exert an adverse and unconscious influence on staff members, and can be terribly damaging.

Here’s an example…

Bob, a member of the resourcing team for ACME Consulting, was selecting staff to deliver specific consultancy services to the clients. One afternoon, when trying to fill a role, he posted a message on the internal website:

“Can anyone tell me who has delivered this service before?”

This innocent message perfectly encapsulates two cultural issues so fundamentally damaging that if you encounter them in your own work, they should strike you like a lightning bolt.

For starters, “Who has done it before?” is not the right question.

This not necessarily Bob’s fault, especially if the question is asked routinely. The company assumes that only people who have done this type of task before can do it again. But, if people were allowed to do only those things they had done before, then how would they learn anything new? And how would they do something for the first time?

Pete, an ACME consultant, produced a wonderful set of process diagrams for a client a couple of months back. If the vacant role calls for process diagrams, Bob will put him forward without hesitation. At first Pete will be flattered but, after a succession of similar tasks, he will become bored and demotivated. Alice, a more junior ACME consultant, will feel similarly resentful; she’s been waiting for an opportunity to do process modelling for ages, but the roles keep going to Pete!

It would be better for Bob to have asked “Who is currently able to deliver this service? And who isn’t able yet, but would like to learn?”

This would pair skilled consultants with more junior staff in need of training, providing employment and experience for both. Taking this approach, when the task ends, Bob will have two people with greater experience and capability to deliver; Pete will have become a mentor; and Alice will have the gained experience she needs: everybody wins.

The second issue is more subtle: Why doesn’t he know already?

From a formal EA perspective, this might be tip of an iceberg of poor to non-existent data architecture. Or, from a cultural perspective, this could be indicative of poor record keeping habits. Taking it a step further, how can ACME’s work be reviewed if there is no evidence of who has been doing what, when, and for whom? Lessons can’t be learned, and continuous improvement can’t occur in the absence of evidence.

So, while the culture of an organisation is difficult to model, it is vitally important to its well-being. As architects, we should be aware that looking at what an enterprise does is not enough; to get the full picture, we should look at how it does it too.

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