During my first of many trips this fall, I have time to catch up on some reading and writing. On my way to Regina, Saskatchewan, I dove into Paul Krugman’s recent article in The New York Times Magazine: “How did Economists get it so Wrong?”. The piece is an analysis of primary academic approaches to the macroeconomy, with emphasis on Keynesian vs. Neoclassical economics. The context within which he analyzes these approaches is their ability to describe the forces of depression, recession, bubbles, and human behavior. On this anniversary of the collapse of Lehman brothers, it was a sobering read.
My intent here is not to write about the economy, or even Krugman’s piece. You can read it for yourself here. In the opening pages, however, he ponders the state of the economics profession and raises issues that really resonate with me:
The central cause of the (economics) profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.
Unfortunately, this romanticized and sanitized version of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong. They turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the imperfections of markets – especially financial markets – that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers when regulators don’t believe in regulation.
It’s much harder to say where the economics profession goes from here. But what’s almost certain is that economists will have to learn to live with messiness. That is, they will have to acknowledge the importance of irrational and often unpredictable behavior, face up to the often idiosyncratic imperfections of markets and accept that an elegant economic “theory of everything” is a long way off. In practical terms, this will translate into more cautious policy advice – and a reduced willingness to dismantle economic safeguards in the faith that markets will solve all problems.
These words might just as well be used to describe common tensions within enterprise IT. For example, the first paragraph describes why many strategic IT initiatives, like SOA, fail. Too often, IT zealots and architects are blinded by technophilia and wind up creating intellectually elegant approaches that do not produce results. Context is critical because it introduces variables which increase the likelihood of an initiative’s success. At some point, theory must give way to these variables. It is also faulty thinking to believe that the strength of a theory can actually change the context in which it is proposed. In other words, ignoring a fact (of context) in order to preserve an elegant idea does not make the fact go away.
Given the complexity of a modern enterprise, an overarching theory which guides all aspects of IT is unrealistic. More likely, a holistic approach will comprise multiple theories, each applicable to a subset of IT. Those theories must incorporate an understanding of both system and human behavior, otherwise an overemphasis on automation will result in suboptimization and dehumanized processes. Those humans will exercise their predictably irrational behaviors and wreak havoc on an elegantly intellectual governance approach.
What I’ve just taken pains to describe is the most common failure of enterprise architecture. Give and take between idealized visions of IT and the reality on the ground is the hallmark of effective enterprise architecture. Regulators not believing in regulation – or management not believing in governance – leads to the creation of policies that are either not enforced or mismatched to actual behavior; alternately, governance is preached but no policies are created. Regulation and governance should allow for organic flexibility when operating in a real environment. True, believable governance should inspire and enable behaviors that foster creative work in a safe environment that benefits the enterprise, its people, and its surroundings.
The last paragraph of the Krugman quote touches on what I’ve been calling postmodern IT. The overarching theory (i.e. homogeneity) gives way to messiness. In the midst of that messiness, there are a variety of right answers – solutions to business problems – that can emerge. Postmodern IT embraces the fact that IT environments and infrastructures are heterogeneous, a fact that is only strengthened by recent and future advances in cloud computing. Design and engineering approaches in the postmodern IT paradigm must deal with the combination of fragments, give way to better solutions, and free architects to assemble effective and efficient business applications.
Then again, I don’t want to propose an intellectually elegant overarching theory of postmodernism that is intended to represent all of IT ;-)