The dangers of 'term-hijack'

My post yesterday on “Annoyed at ‘Enterprise 2.0′” seemed to touch a nerve with quite a few folks – it’s had more responses and ‘twitter-play’ than all my other posts in the past month put together. :-) But although there are some aspects that are specific to the ‘Enterprise 2.0′ term, there’s also a more general point that was the real focus of the post: that real dangers arise whenever terminology is ‘hijacked’ by any kind of special-interest group. The dangers are particularly serious when a ‘natural term’ for a domain is hijacked to describe only a subset of that domain, leaving no possible term to describe the remainder of the broader domain.

This is a huge problem for me professionally, because most of my work is about integration across broad domains. Whenever a term has been hijacked by a subset, all discussion of the domain is constrained into the discourse of that subset: it then becomes all but impossible not only to describe any real view of the whole domain, but also any interactions that occur only between other subsets of the domain. For my present work, two key examples are the terms ‘enterprise architecture’ and ‘enterprise 2.0′, and I’ll return to those later; but to illustrate the problem, and just how serious its impacts can be, I’ll use the example of another ‘term-hijack’: domestic violence.

To say that the domain is emotive and politicised is an understatement: I’m well aware that it’s very dangerous to hold any public opinions on this, especially if they run counter to current ‘political correctness’. But as it happens, I’ve been involved in aspects of the field for several decades, right back to the follow-ups to Erin Pizzey’s groundbreaking work, first published in 1974 as her book “Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear”. I was involved in a major review of the Duluth model for violence resolution, and part of my enterprise architecture work for a state-government department a couple of years back included review of provision of domestic-violence support-services. And throughout the field, the single most difficult problem – and the one that most actively hinders progress in resolving the issues – has been the impact of a term-hijack: the assertion that domestic violence is always and only about violence against women.

No-one doubts that violence against women is a serious matter. But it’s not the only form of violence in the domestic context, and the form usually portrayed as ‘domestic violence’ via the term-hijack – violent male partner against defenceless woman – is quite a small proportion of the whole: probably quite a bit less than ten percent, according to the few defensible statistics that we have. Which means that if – as required by the term-hijack – we focus all of our attention on that one subset, not only do we fail to address the ‘bigger picture’, but our interventions are extremely unlikely to work well. Yet we will be unable to see why our interventions don’t work, because the term-hijack prevents us from seeing any of the many ‘unintended consequences’ elsewhere in the domain.

(Recognise the parallels with IT-centric ‘enterprise architecture’ and ‘Enterprise 2.0′ yet? You should…)

In Britain, the term-hijack started soon after Pizzey first publicly presented her work on the first women’s shelter, Chiswick Women’s Aid, and was firmly in place well before the end of the decade. Pizzey herself was one of the few who fought against the hijack, pointing out that violence occurred in many forms in the home – for example, she showed that one of her main problems in the shelter was to stop women from taking their aggression out on their kids once the male partner had been removed from the context. But in one of the more shameful episodes in feminist history, she was publicly denigrated and aggressively silenced, and remains a pariah to much of ‘the sisterhood’ to this day.

Over much of the intervening decades, the term-hijack has been all but complete. The main domestic-violence legislation in the US is the Violence Against Women Act: it does not acknowledge any other form of violence in the home. Many US states still operate mandatory-arrest policies in which, in any police call-out to a inter-gender ‘domestic’, the man – and only the man – is to be arrested and charged with assault, automatically, without regard to context or to whom (if anyone) is injured, even if this is contrary to evidence. The Duluth model defines violence in all its forms as an exclusively ‘male’ characteristic, and explicitly rejects any notion that any woman can ever be violent; yet despite these and many other all-too-obvious flaws, this supposed ‘standard’ is now mandatory for domestic-violence resolution in the majority of US states, and in many countries elsewhere.

Partly as a result of the hijack, much of the so-called ‘research’ in this field is highly politicised, and frequently of very poor quality indeed: in one colleague’s meta-analysis of research in Australia, not a single study was found that had a defensible methodology – most failed at even at the most basic levels, such as egregious errors in arithmetic(!), circular reasoning, or arbitrary extrapolation from very small self-selected sub-groups. The few defensible studies that cover the whole scope are consistent in several key themes: for example, the lifetime risk for both sexes is about 10% (a figure which has been stable for at least four decades); males make up somewhere between 20% to 40% or more of the emergency-room DV case-load, and up to 70% of the ‘severe injury’ class; the most violent class of relationship (by a huge margin) is lesbian; and even women themselves self-report that they initiate violence in the home significantly more often than men. (Apologies for absence of links here: I dumped most of my references on this when I pulled out of the field some years back, but I should be able to dig ‘em up again if anyone insists.) There are also many different forms of violence and abuse, with non-physical forms usually more damaging than physical in the longer term; and there are many different transaction-types such as partner male-female, partner female-male, codependent interactions, sibling-sibling, parent-child, child-parent, adult-elder, elder-adult and even human-animal. There’s also great deal of ‘pass the parcel’ violence and abuse, jumping around from one form and one person to another. So to resolve anything, we have to be able to deal with it as a whole. But because the focus is held rigidly on one subset of the problem, we’re forced to try to resolve the problems with ‘solutions’ that are all but guaranteed to fail – such as requiring men to be legally responsible and culpable for women’s behaviour, or removing a father from the relationship so as to ‘protect’ the children from a mother’s attacks.

(I hope the analogues in IT-centric ‘enterprise architecture’ and IT-centric ‘solutions’ for ‘Enterprise 2.0′ will already be evident here?)

It gets worse. In part of my EA work for that state-government department, I took a whole-of-system view of their DV-services provision – which apparently no-one had done before. The state’s entire policy on DV had been written by a single women’s-activist group: no other views had been allowed, and the document had apparently been through no formal review at all before it was adopted as state policy. Its key assertion was that because more women than men took out Apprehended Violence Orders (protection orders) against their partners, DV services were to be reserved exclusively for women. The department’s DV literature – displayed in hospitals and elsewhere – stated that violence in the home was solely the fault of men; the help-line service was staffed exclusively by women; and operating-instructions made it clear that any calls for help from men were to be referred automatically to police, for arrest and criminal charges. The operating-manual also recommended that all women callers should be advised to take out an AVO, and to be provided with this service at no cost, with no evidence required. (It was possible for men to take out AVOs against partners, through the courts, but only with incontrovertible evidence, and only at considerable financial and other cost.) No-one seemed to have noticed that this entire mess was completely circular: the skewed proportion of AVOs was used to justify the policy which itself automatically skewed the proportion of AVOs. This kind of circular policy was extremely common, and many places still is – and again, guarantees only that the problems will be made worse. Which, again, is used to justify the ‘need’ for the respective service-providers’ ‘services’.

(Again, I hope the analogues to the role of vendors and consultancies in IT-centric ‘enterprise architecture’ and ‘Enterprise 2.0′ will be clear here.)

There are at last some signs of change: for example, much more recognition that males too can be victims as well as perpetrators (though still very little public recognition of the scale of that victimhood). Whilst formal shelters for ‘battered husbands’ are extremely rare – the usual ‘shelter’ is a park bench, a hostel for the homeless or even a prison cell – there are now several DV shelters which will support a father to look after mother-abused children rather than forcing the children into even more problematic foster-care; and there are also much-needed support-services for women wanting to face their own violence against themselves and others. A more integrated approach to ‘domestic’ violence is becoming more common, addressing the full gamut of issues and the interactions between all parties in a given context – including much more recognition of the huge risks of social-workers and other ‘involved outsiders’ being used as pawns in mutual blame-games and other third-party abuse.

(If you’re interested in how these same violence/abuse issues play out in the business environment, and what to do about them within a whole-of-enterprise architecture, see my book Power and Response-ability: the human side of systems and the matching free-download ‘manifesto‘ on power and responsibility in business. There’s also the SEMPER metric/diagnostic, described in another of my books, SEMPER and SCORE: enhancing enterprise effectiveness, and on the website.)

Yet courtesy of the term-hijack – forcing all DV focus onto the relatively small subset of ‘partner active-male-perpetrator versus passive-female-victim’, and preventing any discussion of anything else – these necessary changes are taking place only decades after the underlying social problems were first brought to public notice.

So it would not be unfair to say that this one single term-hijack has held back progress for more than a third of a century. In doing so, it has cost untold millions of whatever currency, and caused untold damage countless thousands or even millions of lives. The only ‘beneficiaries’ – if we can call them that, because everyone loses from this in the long run – have been the service-providers. And even though they no doubt believed that they were doing their best, their approach to the problems was so blinkered and so incomplete that the ‘services’ that they have provided have been, at best, vaguely helpful, but far more often worse than useless.

Term-hijacks matter. As we’ve seen above, they matter most when the ‘natural’ term for a whole domain is hijacked for a small subset of the domain, preventing discussion or even awareness of the whole. And the damage they cause can be huge.

So, to return to topic: term-hijack of ‘enterprise architecture’, and ‘Enterprise 2.0′. It’s worth looking at each of these as follows:

Term ‘enterprise architecture’:

  • natural meaning: ‘the architecture of the enterprise’
  • term-hijack: ‘the architecture of the enterprise’s IT’
  • typical consequences:
    • portrayal of anything not-IT as ‘the business’, without differentiation between strategic, tactical or operational layers
    • promotion of IT ‘solutions’ for contexts for which IT is inherently unsuitable
    • common tendency to search only for problems which match a preselected ‘solution’
    • ignorance of any forms of information-management not centred on IT – i.e. human ‘tacit knowledge’ etc
    • increased misalignment of and tension between IT and all other business domains
    • poor handling or understanding of end-to-end processes, especially where these transit out of IT
    • failure to grasp the distinction between ‘the organisation’ (representing the limits of a control-boundary) and ‘the enterprise’ (shared with stakeholders beyond the organisation control-boundary)
    • high risk of rejection of the entire domain as irrelevant to real-world business issues
  • nominal beneficiaries: IT vendors and consultancies; IT departments
  • costs: financially, probably exceeds a trillion dollars worldwide; immeasurable costs in waste of time, effort, commitment, talent etc

Term ‘Enterprise 2.0′:

  • natural meaning: implied as ‘the social enterprise’, a more socially-oriented way of communicating about business and doing business
  • term-hijack: ‘social software’, IT packages and infrastructures that can be marketed as having some social or collaborative element
  • typical consequences:
    • constraining the entire discourse to technical issues only
    • promotion of IT ‘solutions’ for contexts for which IT is inherently unsuitable
    • common tendency to search only for problems which match a preselected ‘solution’
    • ignorance of the psychology underlying social interactions, reputation and responsibility, and the social nature of ‘enterprise’
    • ignorance of intersections with other related domains such as enterprise architecture, knowledge management etc
    • poor handling or understanding of end-to-end processes, especially where these transit out of IT
    • failure to grasp the distinction between ‘the organisation’ (representing the limits of a control-boundary) and ‘the enterprise’ (shared with stakeholders beyond the organisation control-boundary)
    • high risk of rejection of the entire domain as irrelevant to real-world business issues
  • nominal beneficiaries: IT vendors and consultancies; IT departments
  • costs: financially, already exceeds many billions of dollars worldwide; immeasurable costs in waste of time, effort, commitment, talent etc

In other words, whilst there are some significant differences, these two term-hijacks have very similar consequences. Which is not a surprise, since it’s been much the same people promoting much the same mistakes in each case – as also seen elsewhere with other related themes such as knowledge-management, balanced-scorecard and similar multi-axis reporting, cloud-computing, service-orientation, security, enterprise resource-planning and business process re-engineering. In effect, the real problem is one of mindset: a failure to think wider, to grasp the nature of the whole; a failure to realise that one’s own preferred subset of a domain is not necessarily the sole centre of that domain; and a failure to recognise that wilful ignorance and wilful inaction can have serious consequences.

And in almost every case, the consequences of term-hijacks have been incredibly expensive – in almost every possible sense. Term-hijacks matter: as architects, we need to hammer this point home, in every aspect of our work.

So: three examples of term-hijacks: ‘violence against women’ as the whole of ‘domestic violence’; ‘enterprise IT-architecture’ as the whole of ‘enterprise architecture’; and ‘social software’ as the whole of ‘Enterprise 2.0′. But what other term-hijacks can you see in your own environment, where a subset purports to be the whole? What are the consequences of that term-hijack? What vested interests promote and protect that hijack, and for what reasons? And what can you do to break the hijack in each case?

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Posted in Business, Complexity / Structure, Enterprise architecture, Knowledge, Power and responsibility, Society
One comment on “The dangers of 'term-hijack'
  1. Aaron Taylor says:

    Excellent points, and I think follow logically with Anne Marie McEwan’s breakdown of the term-hijack “Social Networking” into 2 very apt terms – “Enterprise Social Networking” and “Enterprise Social Computing”, for much the same reasons. Public perception of Social Networking has already gravitated towards social networking software, rather than the process of inter-acting socially within the enterprise to share information and, more importantly, knowledge.

    Possibly another term-hijack is the basic reference to “email” as supposedly representing all enterprise communication. Although younger workers are breaking that barrier through their actions, corporate still clings stubbornly to the tool rather than grasping the concept of communication as a social set.

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