Building complex people systems

When we speak of a new profession(alism), could it be that by focusing on IT we are focusing on the wrong thing?

My other interest besides being a nuisance is railroads. I just read the line "railroads nurtured the new profession of civil engineering in the 19th Century" [ America. It's one of those "the world ends at the shining seas" books.]

This resonated with me. Can we paraphrase to "Information Technology nurtured the new profession of"... WHAT?

We - or at least I - am always on about the profession of IT or I prefer Information Engineering.

But maybe the real profession isn't about information any more than civil engineering is about railroads. Maybe the profession is about building complex people systems, about - dare I say it - process, and of course the cultural change to introduce/refine/grow that process.

I put it to the audience that the information age, digital technology, and the internet, (and probably some more factors like the rise of the corporation), have all combined to lift people-process to a new level of complexity, just like railroads forced civil engineering to new levels by the railroad's demand for gentle curves and gradients.

The real profession that we see emerging or maturing is.... what?

Systems engineer? (and not as we meant it when that was a trendy IT title)
Process engineeer?
or is Information Engineer a good description anyway?
or something else...


I think history will record

I think history will record the last few decades as nothing short of another Industrial Revolution.

Information Revolution actually

The Information Revolution actually. Agricultural, Industrial, Information Ages. Yes Drucker and Toffler and co see it that way. From my next book :-D Owning ITIL

Post-Y2K, organisations are demanding greater maturity from their IT departments – they want to see them run like a business, and they want to see disciplines and formalisms as if it were engineering. The current thinking in response to this can broadly be labelled as Service Management, which represents a real paradigm shift (a much-abused term that is used correctly here).
This is part of a much larger philosophical shift in society that we cannot cover here: from a product-centric industrial age to a service-centric information age. See Peter Drucker and Alvin Toffler for the broader social implications, and John Zachman for the implications for computing. This shift takes a generation or more and is in progress now (the end of the 20th Century and the start of the 21st).

The Post Capitalist Society, P. Drucker, Harper Business 1994
The Third Wave, A. Toffler, Morrow 1980
Enterprise Architecture: The Issue of the Century, J. Zachman, Database Programming and Design, Miller Freeman, 1997

IT exists for one reason...


IT exists for one reason: to manage the flow of data between business assets.

One of the main differences between the professions of engineering and architecture, and IT, is that for many years they have been fully documented.

Like IT, the very complex projects they manage involve many related assets, processes and people. Yet unlike IT, the business and the professionals can easily understand each other and these days disasters are fairly rare.

Why? Because they have simple means of communicating with each other. After all, how could complex things like skyscrapers or bridges be built without blueprints or engineering diagrams?

It is this easy to understand “big picture” of the business and IT relationship that has been missing.

To create this picture, and enable business and IT to speak a common language, understanding dataflows is critical. It is the understanding, documenting, and engineering of them which is key to managing complexity.

If we have a simple picture of how each dataflow moves across and through the assets of the business, the responsibilities, roles, risks and costs of every IT resource (or group of IT resources) employed in support of each business activity (and/or set of business activities) can be clearly visualised and, thus, understood.

By attaching value meta data to data flows and cost information to IT assets, we can start to assess the ratio between IT support costs and the value of the contribution of IT to the business.

Which means IT can speak to the board in the language it understands – that of money. It also means that IT will be fully documented, providing a standard for governance and a foundation for professionalism.

See this Wikipedia page for more about the above:

What do you think?


profession emerging

Hi Paul

I agree that IT exists to manage the flow of data, in the same way that railroads exist to manage the flow of freight and passengers.

My point is that the professionals who built railroads weren't railroaders. they also built for canals and, later, for freeways and pipelines and airports and ...

At a layer of abstraction removed from IT there is a profession emerging that builds complex people systems, of which IT is currently the major enabler just as railroads were the only engineering game in town in 1880.

- "IT exists for one reason:

- "IT exists for one reason: to manage the flow of data between business assets."

I think this confuses "how" and "why". Take the example of working for a living. Some might say the purpose of a job is to make money. But money has no intrinsic value, it simply makes other things possible. So the purpose of a job is not money, but to "make other things possible."

Similarly, data flow is important but has no intrinsic value. Its value lies in making other things possible.

IT makes many things possible. While many of them may require data flow (some don't), it shouldn't be construed as the purpose of IT.

Remember when IT allowed phones to become personal? The data flow was used for the same thing: communication. But everything changed, including purpose.

Remember when IT allowed computing to become personal? The data flow was used for the sames things: metrology, control and feedback. But everything changed, including purpose.

Now we see IT allowing fabrication to become personal. The data flow is used for the same thing: to build something. But everything is going to change, including purpose.

social networking and collaborative tools

Great blog entry. Long may it continue. Perhaps the answer lies in the social networking and collaborative tools.

In my experiences corporations don't work. Their software and process is large,clunky and difficult to fix. Perhaps open source is the answer. When I say open source I am also refer to the process of open source not just the product. When people work on what THEY, as opposed to the corporation, find interesting perhaps quality will be higher.

I am not proposing this is the answer to all our problems. But IT is clearly not working as well as it could and trusting corporations to fix it is a cop out.

the engineering problem

I'm a great fan of open source (this blog is built entirely of it from Linux and Apache up)

In its place it does great things. But I disagree about quality. the quality of the code in this stack varies from excellent to awful, depending on who wrote it and most of all on how core it is. the very core stuff gets lots of eyes and lots of energy. get one or two layers out and their is one owner working with little collaboration. Commercial software is much the same.

More importantly though, I don't think open source has anything much to do with IT. IT is about the application of software tools to business requirements. Whether those tools are built by open source or a mega-corp makes little difference. The in-house systems of each discrete organisation have to be assembled/enabled/instantiated somehow and therein lies the engineering problem.

IT leads people to become management consultants

I really liked this blog. Had no idea that railroads bootstrapped civil engineering. I always believed in the cliche that civil engineers build bridges, so I always thought that's where the discipline emerged from.

That aside, in my mind we've moved beyond the technology of computers and are mainly working with the technology of humans. This is certainly true for a lot of big organizations.

That said, we forgot how hard it is to get a stable IT organization to begin with. For those of us that aren't currently working in a mega-corp or the government, technology is still something you grapple with on a day-to-day basis, and because everyone is so huddled together, the problems of data semantics and business rule management can be managed in an informal way. So, you're left with a technology stack that can't be abstracted away, and proprietary knowledge stuck in SMEs heads. Fungibility in most of these less than gigantic organizations can be a rare commodity.

But, the big company is the right place to look at. It's the desired end state for all little companies. Little companies criticize bureacracies found in large companies, but management all craves that stability, so we're always headed in that direction.

Getting back to the big companies. I would say that the most adept enterprise architects are essentially busines consultants who are fluent on both the business and technology sides. I.e. they grok the business, but understand the limitations of the technology.



In reference to the entry by Neil Hepburn.

Apologies but I don't understand any of this beyond the second paragraph. I looked up fungible and that didn't help. What does "a technology stack that can't be abstracted away" mean? How about "the problems of data semantics and business rule management can be managed in an informal way"?

Please help.

Alex Jones

The analogy

Historically bridges were always the big driving force for civil engineering, but up until the 19th Century most of them were made by people who had little idea what they were doing. they had no scientific basis for it. they just used gut feel, guesswork and copying to build their bridges. The most experienced built the best bridges, but some still fell down and nobody exactly knew why. Sound familiar?

The industrial revolution changed that. Suddenly canal aquaducts and later railroad bridges were required that had to carry enormously higher loads while staying nice and level and steady. And they were much much longer and higher: with a road you can dip down into the valley as far as possible, have a nice short bridge, then crawl back up the other side. Not so with canals or trains. Lastly, when two steam locos double-heading hit a bridge at 60 mph, believe me you need a whole new order of engineering. Along with that came tunnels and cuttings and fills on a scale never conceived of before.

And it wasn't just the design that changed. It was the logistics of building on such a larger scale.

When my Dad ran a data center, there was 64k of memory. It basically added up the day's cheques and deposits for the banks, and spewed out a bunch of totals. These days ERP and CRM and the Windows desktop is a whole different ballgame.-

More of the railroad analogy

In the unlikely event that any other reeader owns Landmarks on the Iron road you'll see how slowly I get through books these days (mind you I read three or four at a time). I only just go to this quote on page 4

In the decade between 1870 and 1880 railroad and highway bridges collapsed at a rate of about forty a year [in the USA]... Frequently, designers had an imperfect understanding of the forces... or of the potential dangers... Steadily increasing loads often subjected bridges to stresses for which they had never been designed... All too commonly bridges were hastily built by the cheapest means... Quite generally, too, bridges were designed and built for the railroads by independent bridge companies on a competitive bid basis.

Woooooo spooky.

my birthday's over....

In addition to Information Engineering, which fueled an insatiable desire for more information, the dawn of Information Technology nurtured the (renewed) profession of Information Auditor. It seems the Engineers thought they could engineer the information ...The increasing use (and mis-use) of information led to such vicious cycles of revelation and insanity --- wonderful discoveries, snake oil scams and terrible madness on a global and immediate scale --- there was overwhelming need to validate both the source (Data) and analysis (Information) just to keep order.

However, even the Information Auditors couldn't stop the madness. It got so bad we didn't know who to believe -- who we could Trust. So academia was revived and an old profession re-emerged with a vengeance. Teacher. This led us to walk into the light and talk to our neighbors (instead of our computers) until, finally -- we found real Truth (Knowledge).

and we (re)learned that while each individual journey is unique, it is also quite the same...

We like to laugh.
We want to live in Peace.
We Love our kids and each other.
We want to make the World a better place.

and so the second age of enlightenment began...

I might also add

We must not blog late in the evening after too much Merlot.

John M. Worthington
MyServiceMonitor, LLC

The road of skepticism leads to...

Please, don't stop now. This might be the thread that transcends this blog's original inspiration.

Can you take us the next step?

I'm a bit busy feeding wife son and dog (and keeping out @%$$% spammers). Can you take us the next step?

How about a half-step?

Your post reminds me of a quote by Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

What you’ve described as a Complex People System (CPS) belongs to what social scientists call multi-loop nonlinear feedback systems. Yes, it’s quite a mouthful. A CPS is far more complex and harder to deal with than technological systems.

My first direct encounters with CPS came from dealing with IT problems in the Fortune 100. These were the usual culprits such as low quality, expensive budgets, instability of operations and so on. For the most part, people know what they are seeking to accomplish and can give rational reasons for their actions. They work in good conscience and to the best of their abilities. They will follow management policies they believe will make things better.

In many cases, however, it is revealed that the internal practices actually cause the observed difficulties. In fact, a downward spiral often forms whereby the solutions make the problems worse and thereby cause greater incentives to redouble the very actions that caused the difficulties in the first place.

A CPS can mislead in devious ways. For example, human suffering in inner cities is accompanied by inadequate housing. As a solution, inexpensive housing is increased. The poor are drawn to the inexpensive housing and the population grows. More people are trapped in the depressed area than before the solution. The desperate are now surrounded by yet more of the desperate. The solution is defeated.

Worse, chances are great that a person guided by common sense will move the CPS in the wrong direction. For example, in an urban CPS, if you seek to make the city a better place for low-income people, it appears that low-income housing should be reduced rather than increased. Incentives (tax breaks) should be created to bring in opportunities to those that desperately need them. In other words, in order to help the poor, the assistance should be directed towards the rich. Try pitching that idea to the common citizen.

Many of today’s CPS problems (urban, IT and otherwise) are the cumulative result of short-run solutions taken in the past. For a long time, there was no way to accurately manage the behavior of a CPS except by discussion, argument, contemplation and guesswork. Now methods are popping up all over the place. Unfortunately, these methods can't yet be distilled in a "CPS for dummies" book. The profession will require the education and practice we mandate from board-certified civil engineers.

How about "CPS Engineer"?

Tao Te Ching revisited

It seems that modern social science is only beginning to catch up with old Lao Tzu:

The more restrictions and prohibitions are in the empire, the poorer grow the people. The more weapons the people have, the more troubled is the state. The more there is cunning and skill, the more startling events will happen. The more mandates and laws are enacted, the more there will be thieves and robbers. (57)

Sounds like he also understood Black Swans.

But, what is the scope of the discussion here? All of philosophy and the human condition? Or something more restrained?

"Information Engineering" is associated with Finkelstein, Martin, and CASE; not sure it can be recycled.

I also continue to wonder whether the term "engineer" is suitable. With due respect to Steve McConnell, I think that those who see collaborative system development more as art, or even gardening, must be given their due.

Charles T. Betz

railroads and IT

You might be interested in this article (that I edited) from Computerworld last summer:

"What IT can learn from the railroad business"

similar thoughts

yes I think I remember it. May have subliminally contributed to this post?

I had a similar thought back in 2006:

I'm afraid the telcos have been caught in the nasty bind that faces any industry that requires massive capital investment: they grow fat in the good times; they suffer horribly when an alternative competitor arises because they do not have the liquidity to get out.

It happened to railroads. It is happening to telcos. The reason telcos are piling so enthusiastically into mobiles and cable and content is that they have to replace the copper as a source of income and very quickly.

Well, sorry for the telcos, and their shareholders. They were blue-chip investments in their day. They may be again if they can avoid going the way of the railroad. The analogy is those (very few) railroads that reinvented themselves as transportation networks: trucking, warehousing, air...

..that might even have influenced the Computerworld article eh? It's a classic model though.

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