Tools: More than the system

“Whatever it looks like, and no matter how technical it may be, ultimately it’s always a people problem.”
[Gerald M. Weinberg, ‘The Secrets of Consulting‘]

An issue we’ve often come across in our consulting is that when systems are discussed, most people immediately think of information-systems as ‘the system’. It’s a mistake – an important one, because it often leads directly to serious practical problems.

One approach we’ve found useful is to emphasise that:

  • The system is more than ‘the system’.
  • Every system is part of a larger system.
  • All boundaries between systems are arbitrary.
  • Wherever systems meet, there is an interface.
  • Wherever interfaces are implicit or ambiguous, any uncertainties must be resolved by people.
  • So it’s probably a good idea to help people – such as the company’s staff – to be able to resolve such uncertainties!

The certainties are easy: so much so that we can usually rely on technology to manage them for us. It’s the uncertainties that are the problem…

And it’s important to acknowledge, from the very beginning, that there are always uncertainties – in everything. At xio we often use the concept of wyrd to illustrate this; it’s also seen in the vagaries of Murphy’s Law. No matter how much we might want to put boundaries on systems, ultimately every system is part of every other system – which means that there will always be problems…

Unless, of course, we can develop a different attitude to problems – and instead view them not as problems, but as opportunities.

It’s our choice: we can do it either way. And as one theorist commented, “to be prepared against surprise is to be trained; to be prepared for surprise is to be educated.” So we can develop systems which are prepared for surprise, which can handle uncertainty – by supporting the human side of systems, and not getting lost in the technology. Tom Davenport, one of the ‘gurus’ of knowledge-management, emphasises the same point about usefulness:

“If you’re spending more than one-third of your time on technologies for knowledge-management, you’re neglecting the content, organisational culture and motivational approaches that will make a knowledge-management system actually useful.”

In a more general sense, any business system relies on integration between three separate strands:

  • IT: the information-technology – or whatever other technology is required
  • QS: the quality-system
  • HR: the management/motivational model

The technology can be anything: many successful knowledge-management systems, for example, rely on the simplest of technology – nothing more sophisticated than paper forms, a well-planned card-index and a row of shelves and filing-cabinets. The best technology is simply that which works – works adequately well in the required conditions.

The quality-system is important because it provides purpose – an anchor against which any system being developed can be tested. A well-designed quality-system will also provide tools for working with uncertainty: explicit work-instructions supported by procedures and policy, providing guidelines for appropriate choices when the system responds to – or with – the world in unexpected ways.

The management/motivational model is ‘HR’ not just in the sense of ‘human resources’, but perhaps even more in the sense of ‘human relations‘. Most so-called ‘knowledge-management systems’ actually rely on human memory to maintain the connections between items of information – without which that information ceases to be knowledge, and instead degrades to the meaninglessness of mere data. Where management provides active support for creating a ‘learning organisation’ (to use Peter Sengé’s term), and emphasises and acknowledges the importance of personal skill (enhancing what Pirsig describes colloquially as ‘gumption‘), it becomes safe to share knowledge and ideas – and find new ways to extend the boundaries of systems.

Every system is part of a larger system.

Ultimately, there is only one system.

And whether we like it or not, we’re all part of it.

So it’s worthwhile doing whatever we can to help make that system work!

The well-known computing consultant Gerry Weinberg was one of the originators of General Systems Theory, and his The Secrets
of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully
 is one of the best introductions to its practical implications. (It’s also fun – sadly unusual in most business books!)

Peter Sengé and his team have probably been the most active proponents of the concept of ‘learning organisations’ in business: try his books The Fifth Discipline and The Dance of Change. (What Sengé terms ‘the fifth discipline’ in business is an awareness of the importance of systems-thinking.)

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