The System, Not the Parts

Peter days world of businessI just listened to the November 16, 2009, issue of the BBC podcast called “Peter Day’s World of Business“. It is a rerun (in memoriam) of an interview with business professor Russell Ackoff, which was originally published in 2007.

The main theme of the interview is the need to shift business thinking from small details to entire systems. From operations research where you spend lots of time understanding some process or department in great detail, to a system-level thinking where you focus on what an entire enterprise is doing.

For me, this struck a chord in my system-level heart… in my world of computer systems and virtual platforms, system-level is what it is so hard to get engineers to. Far too much time is spent (in my opinion) understanding, modeling, and tweaking subsystems. Far too little effort is spent on understanding the whole, how things fit together in practice, taking software, hardware, and software system evolution over time into account. The analogy is not perfect, but there are more things that are alike than are not.

The most interesting analysis that Russell Ackoff fires off from his perspective is that of comparing companies and architecture. An architect knows the whole of a building, but does not entirely go into details on just how it is to be built. He/she trusts the carpenters, bricklayers, and other workers to know how best to solve their local problems. Basically, applying hierarchical abstraction to the task of constructing an actual building.

This got me thinking some of why this is the case. I think it could be because building things (castles, cathedrals, houses, walls, pyramids, canals, …) must have been among the most complex tasks undertaken for a very long time in human history. Thanks to this long history, we have perfected the abstraction and division of labor in construction. Buildings are built in a certain way, by a certain set of crafts, since that method has been proven to work well for a very long time. So just like in the case of the design patterns craze in the late 1990’s, architecture might have something to teach us about how to build hardware/software systems too.

Note that for some reason, I cannot find a link to the podcast on the BBC homepage. But if you subscribe in iTunes or similar, I think you will find it. Something is not as user-friendly as it could be.

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