Although the field of systems development is based very much on the application of logical computing systems to semi-logical business practice, the reality of implementation in business transformation is very much a blend of strengths.
Instead of looking at business and development issues from the realm of the mathematical, it is often as enlightening to think of other viewpoints through which to view these problems. The more different problem solving frameworks, ideas, theories and ways of thinking a designer is exposed to the greater the range of possible solutions. Having more possibilities with which to work with allows the probabilities of the most suitable solution to be calculated.
Innovative thinking involves putting to work ideas from one problem space to another. In order to develop information systems that reflect the real world it is important to understand what the business does, and the best way to do that is to talk to those who work there, not only about what they currently do, but how they construct meaning in what they do, and what they plan to get from their new data investments. The mapping of ‘real world’ to ‘computer’ models can be one of the most challenging tasks of creating any large business system and integrating ideas from other fields can help visualise the technical solution more clearly.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI*), a widely utilised technique in academic and health circles can assist the analysis of multidimensional problems where no ‘straightforward’ or ‘easy’ answers are to hand and where the stakeholders have very differing viewpoints.
How does this relate to my current initiative?
Business transformation is a very loaded term that implies a root and branch reform. It has a range of interpretations dependent upon who is sending or receiving the message about transformation. A CEO will certainly have different views to those of the consultant, manager or employee that are also involved.
If the impact of decision is perceived to be high, then the focus will be on the impact, regardless of whether the impact is likely . The dread of the uncertainty involved in implementing a transformation overshadows the likelihood of the supposed impact happening. Fear of change may actively prevent that change occurring, even when it may be of benefit to all parties.
Proponents of Appreciative Inquiry felt that the overuse of “problem solving” as a model often held back analysis and understanding, focusing on problems and limiting discussion of new organizational models .
This cuts to the mismatch that is central to computer software development, that the IT provider is engaged to solve the ‘real world’ problems, problems that have no clear or agreed definition. The five AI principles can assist in multidimensional problem solving and include:
The constructionist principle
The purpose of inquiry is to stimulate new ideas, stories and images that generate new possibilities for action.
Example: many designers approach the construction of systems with templates and schemas uppermost in the mind. Although this may well be the final outcome, it is only a logical construct of the business the client is in. A system design contains many perspectives and vectors from which to view the landscape. Let the users tell the story first, let the design flow from that, the same way a proper architect would approach a brief.
The principle of simultaneity
Questions are never neutral, they are fateful, and social systems move in the direction of the questions they most persistently and passionately discuss.
Do we approach systems development with an undue bias towards ‘fixing’ what is broken, or should the focus be on elaborating and enriching the strengths of the ‘As-Is’ story as it unfolds into the ‘To Be’?
The poetic principle
Organizational life is expressed in the stories people tell each other every day, an evolving story. Topics discussed invoke sentiments, understandings, and worlds of meaning.
Utilising the expressions and words used in the workplace in systems that mirror their world will increase the amount of interaction with a system, reduce the amount of training and confusion that can occur. Building a shared understanding (meaning) between system builders and users pays dividends when it is time to update (and that day will arrive).
The anticipatory principle
What we do today is guided by our image of the future. It is the role of the group to build a positive image of the future.
One role of a systems architect is to communicate (roadmap) a pathway to a better business. “Kind of like you, but on a good day”. Seek to provide reinforcement of this positive imagery by providing stepping stones to a better future. Sure, it’s easy to skate over the difficult change stuff, but a horizon point provides a focus for the group.
The positive principle
Proposes that momentum and sustainable change requires positive affect and social bonding. Sentiments like hope, excitement, inspiration, camaraderie and joy increase creativity, trust, openness to new ideas and people, and cognitive flexibility. They also promote the strong connections and relationships between people, particularly between groups in conflict, required for collective inquiry and change.
Designers with the confidence to project positive project outcomes are more likely to achieve success and build community buy in.
Business transformation is not a perfect democracy, but one thing it should provide is a forum for discussion between different stakeholder groups, groups who might not necessarily interact in a positive way on a daily basis.
The system architect should provide a positive presence around whom interested groups can talk about their experiences of their business, enabling a rounded view of how the changes will impact their working lives. As form follows function the computer systems that are produced will reflect the work people are engaged in, and lead to a positive transformation into the digital space.
*AI, although more properly Appreciative Enquiry (AE) for English readers.
. Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A., 2013. Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. In Handbook of the fundamentals of financial decision making: Part I (pp. 99-127).
. A fuller definition can be found here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appreciative_inquiry