Evolution, obsolescence and enterprise architecture
Enterprise architects are seldom (never?) given a blank canvas on which they can draw as they please. They invariably have to begin with an installed base of systems over which they have no control. As I wrote in a piece on the legacy of legacy systems:
An often unstated (but implicit) requirement [on new systems] is that [they] must maintain continuity between the past and present. This is true even for systems that claim to represent a clean break from the past; one never has the luxury of a completely blank slate, there are always arbitrary constraints placed by legacy systems.
Indeed the system landscape of any large organization is a palimpsest, always retaining traces of what came before. Those who actually maintain systems – usually not architects – are painfully aware of this simple truth.
The IT landscape of an organization is therefore a snapshot, a picture that begins to age the instant is taken. Practicing enterprise architects will say they know this “of course”, and pay due homage to it in their words…but often not their actions. The conflicts and contradictions between legacy and their aspirational architectures are hard to deal with and hence easier to ignore. In this post, I draw a parallel between this central conundrum of enterprise architecture and the process of biological evolution.
A Batesonian perspective on evolution
I’ve recently been re-reading Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, a book that Gregory Bateson wrote towards the end of his life of eclectic scholarship. Tucked away in the appendix of the book is an essay lamenting the fragmentation of knowledge and the lack of transdisciplinary thinking within universities. Central to the essay is the notion of obsolescence. Bateson argued that much of what was taught in universities lagged behind the practical skills and mindsets that were needed to tackle the problems of that time. Most people would agree that this is as true today as it was in Bateson’s time, perhaps even more so.
Bateson had a very specific idea of obsolescence in mind. He suggested that the educational system is lopsided because it invariably lags behind what is needed in the “real world”. Specifically, there is a lag between the typical university curriculum and the attitudes, dispositions, knowledge and skills needed to the problems of an ever-changing world. This lag is what Bateson referred to as obsolescence. Indeed, if the external world did not change there would be no lag and hence no obsolescence. As he noted:
I therefore propose to analyze the lopsided process called “obsolescence” which we might more precisely call “one-sided progress.” Clearly for obsolescence to occur there must be, in other parts of the system, other changes compared with which the obsolete is somehow lagging or left behind. In a static system, there would be no obsolescence…
This notion of obsolescence-as-lag has a direct connection with the contrasting process of developmental and evolutionary biology. The process of development of an embryo is inherently conservative – it develops according predetermined rules and is relatively robust to external stimuli. On the other hand, after birth, individuals are continually subject to a wide range of external factors (e.g. climate, stress etc.) that are unpredictable. If exposed to such factors over an extended period, they may change their characteristics in response to them (e.g. the tanning effect of sunlight, adaptability etc). However, these characteristics are not inheritable. They are passed on (if at all) by a much slower process of natural selection. As a consequence, there is a significant lag between external stimuli and the inheritability of the associated characteristics.
As Bateson puts it:
Survival depends upon two contrasting phenomena or processes, two ways of achieving adaptive action. Evolution must always, Janus-like, face in two directions: inward towards the developmental regularities and physiology of the living creature and outward towards the vagaries and demands of the environment. These two necessary components of life contrast in interesting ways: the inner development-the embryology or “epigenesis”-is conservative and demands that every new thing shall conform or be compatible with the regularities of the status quo ante. If we think of a natural selection of new features of anatomy or physiology-then it is clear that one side of this selection process will favor those new items which do not upset the old apple cart. This is minimal necessary conservatism.
In contrast, the outside world is perpetually changing and becoming ready to receive creatures which have undergone change, almost insisting upon change. No animal or plant can ever be “readymade.” The internal recipe insists upon compatibility but is never sufficient for the development and life of the organism. Always the creature itself must achieve change of its own body. It must acquire certain somatic characteristics by use, by disuse, by habit, by hardship, and by nurture. These “acquired characteristics” must, however, never be passed on to the offspring. They must not be directly incorporated into the DNA. In organisational terms, the injunction – e.g. to make babies with strong shoulders who will work better in coal mines- must be transmitted through channels, and the channel in this case is via natural external selection of those offspring who happen (thanks to the random shuffling of genes and random creation of mutations) to have a greater propensity for developing stronger shoulders under the stress of working in coal mine.
The upshot of the above is that the genetic code of any species is inherently obsolete because it is, in at least a few ways, maladapted to its environment. This is a good thing. Sustainable and lasting change to the genome of a population should occur only through the trial-and-error process of natural selection over many generations. It is only through such a gradual process that one can be sure that that a) the adaptation is necessary and b) that it occurs with minimal disruption to the existing order.
…and so to enterprise architecture
In essence, the aim of enterprise architecture is to come up with a strategy and plan to move from an old system landscape to a new one. Typically, architectures are proposed based on current technology trends and extrapolations thereof. Frameworks such as The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF) present a range of options for migrating from legacy architecture.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 13 of the TOGAF Guide:
[The objective is to] create an overall Implementation and Migration Strategy that will guide the implementation of the Target Architecture, and structure any Transition Architectures. The first activity is to determine an overall strategic approach to implementing the solutions and/or exploiting opportunities. There are three basic approaches as follows:
- Greenfield: A completely new implementation.
- Revolutionary: A radical change (i.e., switches on, switch off).
- Evolutionary: A strategy of convergence, such as parallel running or a phased approach to introduce new capabilities.
What can we say about these options in light of the discussion of the previous sections?
Firstly, from the discussion of the introduction, it is clear that Greenfield situations can be discounted on grounds rarity alone. So let’s look at the second option – revolutionary change – and ask if it is viable in light of the discussion of the previous section.
In the case of a particular organization, the gap between an old architecture and technology trends/extrapolations is analogous to the lag between inherited characteristics and external forces. The former resist change; the latter insist on it. The discussion of the previous section tells us that the former cannot be wished away, they are a natural consequence of “technology genes” embedded in the organization. Because this is so, changes are best introduced in a gradual way that permits adaptation through the slow and painful process of trial and error. This is why the revolutionary approach usually fails.
It follows from the above that the only viable approach to enterprise architecture is an evolutionary one. This process is necessarily gradual. Architects may wish for green fields and revolutions, but the reality is that lasting and sustainable change in an organisation’s technology landscape can only be achieved incrementally, akin to the way in which an aspiring marathon runner’s physiology adapts to the extreme demands of the sport.
The other, perhaps more subtle point made by this analogy is that a particular organization is but one member of a “species” which, in the present context, is a population of organisations that have a certain technology landscape. Clearly, a new style of architecture will be deemed a success only if it is adopted successfully by a significant number of organisations within this population. Equally clear is that this eventuality is improbable because new architectural paradigms are akin to random mutations. Most of these are rightly rejected by organizations, but only after exacting a high price. This explains why most technology fads tend to fade away.
The analogy between the evolution of biological systems and organizational technology landscapes has some interesting implications for enterprise architects. Here are a few that are worth highlighting:
- Enterprise architects are caught between a rock and a hard place: to demonstrate value they have to change things rapidly, but rapid changes are more likely to fail than succeed.
- The best chance of success lies in an evolutionary approach that accepts trial and error as a natural part of the process. The trick lies in selling that to management…and there are ways to do that.
- A corollary of (2) is that old and new elements of the landscape will necessarily have to coexist, often for periods much longer than one might expect. One must therefore design for coexistence. Above all, the focus here should be on the interfaces for these are the critical elements that enable the old and the new to “talk” to each other.
- Enterprise architects should be skeptical of cutting edge technologies. It almost always better to bet on proven technologies because they have the benefit of the experience of others.
- One of the consequences of an evolutionary process of trial and error is that benefits (or downsides) are often not evident upfront. One must therefore always keep an eye out for these unexpected features.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that an interesting feature of all the above points is that they are consistent with the principles of emergent design.
In this article I’ve attempted to highlight a connection between the evolution of organizational technology landscapes and the process of biological evolution. At the heart of both lie a fundamental tension between inherent conservatism (the tendency to preserve the status quo change) and the imperative to evolve in order to adapt to changes imposed by the environment. There is no question that maintaining the status quo is never an option. The question is how to evolve in order to ensure the best chance of success. Evolution tells us that the best approach is a gradual one, via a process of trial, error and learning.