Sunday, 6 September 2015

Constructing System Descriptions...

There are many methods and tools proffered as system frameworks and aides for the job of gathering information and constructing system descriptions. The following approaches are helpful approaches for describing the more or less complex organisational, inter-organisational, market, and social relationships of technologies and their working contexts.

Organigraphs for Describing Organizations
Organigraphs are a tool for drawing and representing the relationships and activities of an organisation. They are an alternative to organisational charts as a tool for mapping an organisational relationships and interactions.
They can be treated as an antidote in some respects to the traditional organisational chart, instead of the familiar hierarchical view depicting names, titles and formal lines of authority.
“Organigraphs have been able to demonstrate how a place works, depicting critical interactions among people, products, and information. …to stimulate conversations about how best to manage their operations and which strategic options make the most sense,” (Mintzberg and Van der Heyden, 1999)
Organigraphs are a view of the organisation that can be more aligned with its activities and their interrelationships or workflows. Activities and functions could be thought of as the organs and muscles of an organisation. The act of redrawing the system of the organisation in this way offers a lexicon for represent and redefining organisational action. It offers an approach for analysts to elicit and generate “new vocabulary, and associated pictures... [to bring] choices into high relief.” (Mintzberg and Van der Heyden, 1999)

The Organigraph Palette consists of: People, Products, and Information (Figure below). Different actors internal and external to the organisation are included. The boundary of the system is loosely defined; in fact the value of depicting organization in this style is that the boundary can be redrawn and rethought.
Basic Organigraph graphical elements and simple example applied to a newspaper publisher

The ‘ecology’ of the organization, its products and the environment within which they exist can be highlighted. Furthermore these views depicts people (as individuals, teams, or divisions), products (things, services), and information, equally. There are three basic representations; chains, hubs and webs. Typically nodes will be people or products and arcs or connections will be product movement, transformation or information. The following example illustrates the multiple ways we may represent the product development and support function in an IT organization (figure below).
Three different representations of customer interaction with the organisation

There are no ‘right’ organigraphs, just those that are more or less useful. Remember, the different organisational metaphors are simply useful ways of thinking about organisation. As an analytical approach this kind of organisational mapping can draw out and juxtapose the various connections and flows. It highlights sequential, radial and web-like relations. They allow us the opportunity to redesign the relations, or highlight them so they can be better understood and supported. The graph provides a system-like view of the organisation in its environment and the activity focus within the organisation and for actors outside the organisation.

Activity Theory as a System for Describing Systems
Activity Theory has been employed as a descriptive theoretical framework to assist systems development, for eliciting and refining requirements with the goal of developing prototypes through to new technology in live user settings. It was adapted to analyse user situations and needs when cooperative work settings are reconfigured with computer support. It has strong theoretical constructs, an iconic structure, it focuses on the individual within organisations and society, and its primary unit of analysis is activity. Activity Theory includes the actors and objects involved in the process of someone transforming something into something else. This is the key process of development where the new product embodies or signifies new meaning for a wider community of others (e.g. customers, other members of the organisation). The approach has also been drawn on as a theoretical foundation to design methods like Interaction Design and Participatory Design (Moggridge, 2006, Cooper, 2004, Cooper et al., 2007, Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006). Researchers have also used it to look at organisational interaction specifically in the contexts of seeking to attain new outcomes in the wider environment. As such activity theory can be used when we attempt to manage the development or intervention in mid-range systems, to innovate social, organizational, and technological processes. It provides a conceptual framework for making sense of how organisational actors can or should go about taking action in situations of changing requirements in dynamic market environments.
The generic Activity Theory dimensions for describing resources affecting change in any setting.

Human behaviour in groups has proved difficult to manage well using classical scientific methods. Human behaviour is intrinsically complex and revisable. Social phenomena , purposeful systems (Ackoff, 1971), are the edge cases for scientific enquiry (Checkland, 1981). Checkland describes four classes of systems: natural, designed physical, designed abstract, and human activity systems. In spite of the elusive and changing character of purposeful human systems there remains much we can do when acting mindfully in settings to develop new technology and systems.

This issue of boundary setting and description dogged early attempts to construct detailed models of physical processes (e.g. in biology, materials, etc) and led to the idea of closed and open systems. ‘Systems thinking’ is presented as a systematic approach to thinking about ‘wholes’ rather than simplified reductions. By thinking holistically ‘systems thinking’ makes explicit the role of the problem describer (not necessarily the problem setter) as both observer and as an agent actively involved in articulating and refining the problem statements. There are, potentially, many relevant aspects of human activity systems that remain unknown or may be ignored based on how the object of concern and its environment are understood. For example, we generally assume that the outputs (products) of an organization are its primary means for acting in its market or operating environment. However there exist multiple other avenues that are often overlooked: welfare effects from corporate profits, political actions in industry and public forums, marketing, word-of-mouth, ethical and wider corporate governance etc.

The challenge for defining and describing product systems when humans are involved is in determining what we should include (and exclude) from analysis, and therefore, what is understood as relevant ! In essence the description of a complex real world system we be inevitably incomplete. Quantitative models of human activity systems become increasingly sensitive to initial conditions and are vulnerable to unknown factors, in large measure due to “the messy richness of ‘biological effects’” (Checkland, 1981). The problem of complexity is compounded in social studies and organizational behaviour because the social environment and its conditions of possibility are themselves social constructions; where a social construction can be understood as an on-going process of participation in collective sense-making (Giddens, 1984). Therefore, in human systems (organisations, markets, culture, society) – the subject matter for management, engineering and social science – working hypotheses, laws and generalities may hold for periods of time, but they remain open to revision and reinvention. The added complexity of social processes in society, markets, and organisations, and associated problems we hope to resolve, may often work against the rationality of scientific or engineered solutions (experimentation, observation, reduction).