On Abstract Systems

We’ve all seen those ab­stract sys­tems that are used for anal­y­sis like: Strat­egy = Ends + Ways + Means, Water­fall Model: Re­quire­ments, Sys­tem De­sign, Im­ple­men­ta­tion, In­te­gra­tion & Test­ing, De­ploy­ment, Main­te­nance, SWOT: Strengths, Weak­nesses, Op­por­tu­ni­ties, Threats, ect.

Classes that teach these tend to be bor­ing. Often you’ll get three differ­ent busi­ness mod­els thrown at you with min­i­mal mo­ti­va­tion. You won’t be told about the en­vi­ron­ment this model evolved in, nor why the par­tic­u­lar el­e­ments were in­cluded. Some­times you’ll get a con­crete ex­am­ple, some­times not, but if so, it’s more likely to be a made up sce­nario rather than an ex­am­ple from some­one’s real life ex­pe­rience. It is even rarer that you will re­ceive mul­ti­ple such ex­am­ples.

This is largely a re­sult of peo­ple’s bias to­wards ex­plicit knowl­edge. But the ex­plicit knowl­edge is in most cases sim­ply one of many ways of carv­ing up pos­si­bil­ity space. Much more im­por­tant is the im­plicit knowl­edge of how to ap­ply the sys­tem and what situ­a­tions it is helpful in. Strat­egy = Ends + Ways + Means be­comes more ap­pli­ca­ble when you learn that it be­came dom­i­nate af­ter the Viet­nam War when it was felt that the loss was the re­sult of at­tempt­ing to achieve cer­tain ob­jec­tives with­out suffi­cient re­sources. So in­stead of just ask­ing, “What are we try­ing to achieve?” and “How could we achieve it?“, you also wanted to ask, “What re­sources are needed to achieve it?“. Similarly, the Water­fall Model be­comes more use­ful when you are told that many pro­jects have not been as suc­cess­ful as de­sired be­cause of a failure to con­sider re­quire­ments (ie. us­ing a frame­work that re­quires In­ter­net Ex­plorer 10+ when some staff are stuck on In­ter­net Ex­plorer 9). Similarly, peo­ple of­ten perform the cost anal­y­sis of pro­jects for just the ini­tial cod­ing, with­out ac­count­ing for the main­te­nance cost. This is a sys­tem for mak­ing sure that you don’t for­get the ob­vi­ous.

It would be even bet­ter if I could illus­trate these with ex­am­ples from my own ex­pe­rience, but this should still be suffi­cient to illus­trate my point. I do think that these sys­tems can be use­ful. But only when com­mu­ni­cated in the right way.