This is part of a series of posts that I’ll be doing about ‘The Really Big Picture‘ at a societal/economic level, in relation to enterprise-architecture.
This post sets out some of the scope and scale of the changes that are or are likely to be coming up on the horizon over the next few years and/or decades, and what we can start to do about it right now in our architecture-work within our existing organisations.
First, though, a brief aside about the practical purpose of this series of posts. In a comment to the previous post, Cynthia Kurtz rightly hauled me over the coals for what might be described as ‘overly apocalyptic’ language in the earlier introductory posts, when I was talking about potential big-picture changes that could be “forced on us”, and the limitation of “Business As Usual”, and so on. Cynthia pointed out that we really can’t pretend to predict any of this: there are many other possible big-picture changes (including none at all – though that does seem very unlikely to me), and there are many, many different forms of ‘business as usual’. As she also commented:
One thing I’ve noticed in a lot of futurist writings is that “what will happen” means “what I want to happen.”
…to which I will have to plead somewhat guilty here, I suppose… – perhaps more than a leeetle bit of wishful thinking on my part, a bit too much ‘normative architecture’ and the like? Oh well. Yet Cynthia’s final ‘courteous challenge’ is the real point here:
How does your really-big-picture EA look in the light of this?
What I really want to do here, I suppose, is explore how to use futures-disciplines properly within enterprise-architecture and the like. In her comment, Cynthia correctly points out some of the common flaws in futures-work – for example, the tendency to use declaratives (“this will happen”) rather than the more correct language of possibility (“this may happen”). The practical problem, though, is that most existing EA tools and frameworks either fail to include any proper futures-techniques at all, or mangle them to the point of misleading unusability. The TOGAF misuse of ‘scenarios‘ is one particularly egregious example of the latter: there, ‘scenarios’ are defined as little more than a slightly-broader-scope business use-case for IT, whereas the proper futures-usage is more as in the classic Shell scenarios, which cover a literally global scope.
Futures-literacy for enterprise-architecture would include a better understanding of where futures-techniques sit, and the ways in which they can be radically different from those we use for short- to medium-term architecture-development. One key point is that it’s not about planning, about (futile) attempts to ‘predict the future’: instead, it’s about developing the capability to adapt fast to any future – and, in our case, creating an architecture that can cope with potential revolutionary change in the context for our enterprise and organisation.
One illustration from the Five Element set may help here:
Planning and other tactical Preparation are mostly about thinking, about information; likewise the metrics and other information-sources on which we base our understanding of Performance. But to create some kind of handle on the future, we need to be willing to explore feelings and emotions – what we might call the taste or sensing or flavour of the respective future, what the challenges and opportunities might be. And that’s a significantly different skillset, a different kind of ‘thinking’ – much more about People and Purpose – compared to that which we use in the mostly-analytic work of planning and the like.
Hence what I’ll aim to do here is a set of what we might call ‘thought-experiments’ (or ‘feeling-experiments’?), to explore some of these different ‘ways of knowing’. I’ll present these as if they’re ‘factual’, with links and the like to other references – but as Cynthia warns, it’s probably best to think of them as ‘as-if’ scenarios, rather than any kind of certainty or ‘fact about the future’. And because architectures do need to do at least enough design to start off the sensemaking/solution cycle, I’ll present some suggested ideas for ways to address those challenges – though again, Cynthia’s dictum applies.
With all of these posts, I’ll split the material into two parts: ‘The Really Big Picture’, such as what I’m seeing coming up in the medium- to longer-term future, and various ways in which I believe those issues could be addressed; and ‘Putting it into practice’, about ideas and models and techniques to apply the same principles in current, real, everyday enterprise-architectures for commercial businesses or government or whatever.
I hope you’ll it’s a useful and important exercise, anyway: so let’s get started. A little bit of revolution, anyone?
The Really Big Picture
Most enterprise-architects still work primarily in IT, for which in most cases the ‘big picture’ is what TOGAF calls ‘business architecture’ – in other words, ‘anything not-IT that might affect our IT’. In most cases, this boundary of scope will relate only to what happens within this one organisation, though sometimes it might also include a few IT-oriented issues that extend beyond that scope: interface-protocols and standards for information-exchange, for example.
The Big Picture – the kind of ‘big picture’ that we use in a real business-oriented architecture, for example – is rather larger: at that scope, that equivalent of ‘anything not-IT that might affect IT’ becomes more like ‘anything not-business that might affect our business’. In other words, the extended-enterprise. And the scope that concerns us there is mainly in the present or the relatively-near future: in other words, concerns for which we can plan. Sort-of.
But only ‘sort-of’ – because the Really Big Picture is about changes we can’t plan for right now. Clausewitz’s old military dictum applies here: “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”. In a business-context, that translates roughly as “no business-plan survives first contact with the real world” (and it’s perhaps best not to view the real-world as ‘the enemy’ here? ). In the Really Big Picture, we’re always dealing with a real world that we can’t quite predict – or predict at all. And if we can’t predict it, that also means that we can’t control it – a fact which leaves many business-folk feeling very uncomfortable… But since it is reality, we have to find some way to become comfortable with that kind of ‘uncomfortable’ – and help our clients become more comfortable with it, too. That’s where futures-disciplines come into enterprise-architectures.
As enterprise-architects, we also need to be ready for those ‘unpredictable’ risks and opportunities, developing architectures that resilient enough to keep on track to the overall organisational- and enterprise-intent even under the most uncertain of circumstances. (We should already know about the predictable risks and opportunities, of course, and have planned for them in various components of our architecture, such as support for routine business-continuity and disaster-recovery – though amazingly some enterprise-architects and organisations don’t even bother to do that…) The unpredictable risks and opportunities sit some way out on the apparent edge of probability, further down the ‘Long Tail’ – typically referred to by terms such as ‘kurtosis risk‘ or ‘Black Swan event‘.
Futures practitioners refer to this aspect of work as ‘weak-signal detection’: picking up hints of real future possibilities. As Cynthia indicates in her comment, there are many very large-scale ‘known unknowns’ that could hit us, but let’s look at some real examples of ‘revolutions’ whose main effects could be some way down the track, but whose glimmerings are right here, right now.
Consider the environment, the ‘biosphere’ in which all humans live. We might argue about how much of it is actually man-made, and the potential scale of each type of impact, but the fact of major global change in environment is inescapable. Global warming is driving weather destabilisation on a global scale, by comparison with the historical record; major storms tend to be more destructive than – again – the historical record. Meso-climates are shifting their borders, particularly in marginal regions such as the ‘grain-belts’ of Australia or the US Mid-West. With many of the world’s largest cities being located on coastlines, any change in sea-level is likely to place those cities at risk – and as the Japanese earthquake indicated, sea-defences may not be much use if the land itself sinks downward relative to the previous sea-level.
So what, you might say? What’s that got to do with enterprise-architectures? Well, to take those examples:
- actuarial calculations for insurance are mainly based on the historical record – so what happens when the historical trends no longer apply?
- farming-practices are based on meso-climates – so what happens to the farming-industry when an arable region turns into a dustbowl, or a rainforest turns temperate?
- city sea-defences, sewage-outfalls and much else besides are all based on current levels and current risks – so what happens to the city, its population, its industry, its commerce, its ‘property-values’ and everything else, if the sea rises or the city itself sinks?
- conventional calculations often assume an even spread – but what happens if the future isn’t spread evenly?
That last example is much more important than it may seem. Japan was well prepared for earthquakes – even ones much more severe than anything in recent history. They were also prepared for tsunamis, with defences that went right round the coast. But they weren’t prepared for one of the strongest earthquakes on record that also triggered one of the largest tsunamis on record that also swamped the underdesigned defences of a nuclear power-station that had been run ‘on the cheap’ for way too long – with devastating consequences. Each of those items was an identifiable risk considered ‘too unlikely’ to make it worth the effort to address: but it was the interaction between all of those risks that pushed the overall risk much further inward along the ‘long tail’. One of the key tasks of architecture, we might note, is to identify the connections between things: this is a genuine concern for enterprise-architectures.
Consider the revolutions in technology. It’s hard enough trying to guess technological changes even five years ahead: but for this kind of work, we need to look ahead fifty, a hundred or more years. Kurzweil’s much-vaunted Singularity might come to pass, or it might not: what impact would either option have on the architecture of the enterprise? How do we deal with change on a vast scale? Or disappointment on a vast scale?
So what, you might say? What’s that got to do with enterprise-architecture? Well, to give just one example, people are living much longer than they did, thanks to advances in medical technology and the like. But all of the actuarial calculations for state-funded pension-schemes and the like were based on typical life-expectancies back when people started paying into those schemes, three and four and five decades ago – when life-expectancies were much closer to the nominal retirement-age. And there are also many fewer younger-age people coming into the ‘base-level’ of those schemes, to pay for those who’ve reached retirement age. The result? – an almost unmanageable shortfall in pension-funds, with no solution available that does not involve betraying someone, or everyone, on a huge scale. Oops.
And consider the very real social and economic revolutions beginning to take place even now. On one side there’s a major financial/economic mess: as UK Business Secretary Vince Cable described it, it’s hard to explain just how bad the current ‘economic crisis really is. “Ultimately it comes back to this defensiveness and an unwillingness to accept that Britain was operating a model that failed”, he said – a problem of paradigms that we’ll come up against often in any form of futures-work. Then, in part as an aspect of that financial mess, there’s a huge problem of rising prices for food and other fundamentals, coupled with an ‘unemployment’ problem, seemingly on a worldwide scale – with the socioeconomic tensions that powered the ‘Arab Spring’ now starting to appear in Spain, as reported by the BBC and by the Qatar-based news-service Al Jazeera. And behind it all, perhaps, there are other socioeconomic themes, all rising and falling and interweaving with each other, such as described in the BBC documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.
Again, it’s not just the individual themes, but how they all interact. Looking further back in the past, for example, we could look at the huge social upheavals in 14th-century Europe, during and after the Black Death wiped out a third of the entire population. Or, also in Europe, the ‘mini Ice Age’ of the 17th-century, when it was cold enough to freeze the Thames for a ‘Frost Fair‘ several years in a row; or, by contrast, the warm-period of the mid 18th-century that apparently gave enough relief from subsistence to provide the impetus needed to get the nascent Industrial Revolution going.
Then consider too the military and political changes that have occurred throughout those periods: the rise and fall of colonialism, for example, and the complex structures of monopoly and privilege and (to be blunt) corruption that underpinned them. Consider what impacts those would each had had on the architectures and operations of the respective enterprises – not trivial at all.
So note that, given how many of these kinds of major changes have occurred throughout the world, and how often, it’s probable that it’s quite unlikely that you would not have to deal with a change on that scale somewhen during your working-lifetime as an enterprise-architect… Which means that it might perhaps be wise to be ready for that kind of change? – even though you will likely have little or no knowledge beforehand exactly what form that kind of change will take?
And that’s where the futures-disciplines come into the picture – even, or perhaps especially, for enterprise-architecture.
Putting it into practice
The simple suggestion here is to find out more about the futures disciplines and the overall ‘futures toolkit’. Obvious places to start would include the Wikipedia summary, or one of the formal futures bodies such as the Association of Professional Futurists.
Everyone has their collection of preferred tools, though mine would include the following:
- Shell’s guide to scenario-development
- Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis (also Wikipedia summary) – one of the most powerful tools for exploration of ‘deep myth’ in a futures context
- a simple Futures toolkit from the [UK] Local Government Association
- another online Futures toolkit from the ‘Brighter Futures Together’ group in northern England
- the Carnegie Trust toolkit ‘Using scenarios and futures thinking‘ [PDF] – includes an extensive set of references and links
These are all tools that can be put to immediate practical use with architecture-stakeholders at various levels. Whichever way you use these tools, expect to find some real surprises about your own business-context – and about what the future may hold in store for you and your organisation.
Somewhere to start, anyway? – and post other links and queries here as appropriate, of course.
Watch This Space, though – there’ll be quite a few more posts to come in this series.