The Pathologies of Silo-fighting

The division of labour has been the main principle for structuring organisations in the last two centuries. That is still the dominant approach for allocating resources, information and power in companies and public institutions. The new dynamics in a connected world have revealed a rich spectrum of problems related to these structures ranging from ineffective coordination to turf wars. This gave birth to the stigmatising label ‘silos’ and a whole industry of silo-fighters armed with silo-bridging or silo-breaking services, methods and technologies.

Here I will point out the two most prominent organisational pathologies brought by such silo-fighters. I’ll split the silo-fighters’ strategies into silo-bridging and silo-breaking – an oversimplification – to make the illustration of the two pathologies more clear.

‘Bridging the silos’ is not a strategy based much on appreciating their role and thus opting for bridging over breaking.  It’s mainly due to silo-fighters’ insufficient resources and power. If they manage to sell successfully the story of the bad silos, coming with a rich repertoire of metaphors such as walls, chasms, stove-pipes, islands and such like, then they get permission to build – as such a narrative would logically suggest – bridges between the silos.

Now, the problem with bridges is that they are either brittle and quickly break, or they are strong enough to defend their reason to be. They break easily when they fail to channel resources for a longer time than the patience over their initial failures would allow. However, identity formation switches on viability mode. The bridges start to grow out of a network of decisions supporting their mission, now turned into an ongoing function. If the reason the bridges exist are silos, and the bridges want to keep on bridging, then the silos have to be kept healthy and strong as they are what the bridges hang on to.

The bridges reinforce and perpetuate themselves up to a point, in which they are recognised as silos, and the problem is solved very often by building new bridges between them. This is how a cancerous fractal of bridges starts to grow. As attractive as this hyperbole is, I have witnessed repeatedly only two levels of recursion, but isn’t that bad enough?

In contrast, the silo-breaking strategies want nothing less than the destruction of silos. There, the silos are seen only in their role of a problem. Nobody asks what kind of problems this problem was а solution to. Instead, these silo-fighters start waging exhausting wars. The wars can end up in several ways. A common one is resource depletion. Another is with the silos withstanding, or with the silo-fighter being chased away or transformed. And then of course it could be the case of victory for the silo-fighters. And this is when the disaster strikes. Having the silos down, the silos fighters are faced with all the problems being continuously solved by the silos during their lifespan. Usually, they have no preparation to deal with those problems, neither they have the time to come up with and build alternative structures.

When discussing these two pathologies, it is very attractive to search for their root cause and then, when found, fix it. But that would be exactly the fuel these two types of silo-fighters run on. It takes a deeper understanding of the circularity of and in organisations, to avoid this trap. By ‘understanding’, I mean the continuous process, not the stage, after which the new state of ‘understood’ is achieved. And it takes, among other things, the ability to be much more in, and conscious of it, and at the same time much more out, but only as a better point for observation, not as an attempt for excluding the observer.


The Role of Meaning and the Meaning of Roles

Let’s start with roles. ‘Role’ comes from ‘roll’, as it was on a paper roll where the actor part was written. It is about something prescribed and then performed. But it evolved from roles that were performed as prescribed, through those that were not, to performing roles that had not been prescribed at all.

Roles are about relations. In fact, in Description Logic roles play the same role as relation, association, property and predicate in other formal languages. If John has a son George and is 30 years old, then George is in the role of a son for John, and even 30, although not an actor, plays the role of an age for John. Roles are inherently relational. A relation to itself or to something other. There is never just a role, always a ‘role in’ or a ‘role for’.

Roles are not just relational but are often determined by the dynamics of interactions. Here’s a handy example. The role of this text in the situation of you being in the role of a reader, will be, as assigned by me in the role of a writer, to transfer my thoughts on the meaning of roles, but it would rather trigger the construction of both similar and complimenting thoughts of you, and by doing so will play a different role, which, while evoked by me, is determined by you.

As there is now something about the meaning of roles, it’s time to introduce the role of meaning. If the role is always a role-in, my interest here is in the role of meaning in living and social systems. These systems have some things in common. One such thing is that they have internally maintained autonomy. Such autonomous systems bring forth and co-evolve with their niches. And that happens by creating of meanings which motivate attitudes and actions. But how does meaning come about?

Before meaning, there is the primary cognitive act of making a distinction,  bringing up something out of its background, distinguishing a thing of that which it is not. That act determines and is determined by the dynamics of the interaction between the system and its niche (by ‘system’ here I will only refer to systems with internally maintained autonomy). This dynamics is circular and recursive. Roughly speaking, it goes like this:

The act of distinction, the very making of difference changes the making of difference and brings forth “the difference that makes a difference”, in Bateson words, or the “surplus of significance” in Varela words, which is also co-dependant: the sense made changes the sense-making that changes the sense that is made and then brings forth the behaviour changing relation between the sense maker and the meaning of the distinguished element. This results in attitude of attraction, aversion or neutrality (or something more sophisticated like staying put, paralysed by the equal amount of temptation and fear). Or, in other words, the sense-making transcends into value-making. The value-making evolves itself and in downward causality influences the evolution of the distinguishing and the sense-making capability, which is in fact again a distinguishing capability but it is now distinguished as sort of a second-order one.

Before going further, I need to make clarifications on the use of ‘sense-making’ and ‘value-making’. ‘Sense-making’ is giving meaning to what is experienced. Here I use it with an emphasis of the action of making, of the creation, or more precisely, co-creation of sense. It is not that the sense is out there and all we need to do is to disclose it. No, we (or whatever the system in focus is) are the ones that actually make it, the origin is within us, or rather within the dynamics between us and what we interact with.

‘Value-making’ should not be confused with value adding. The system makes a distinction of a higher order in terms of directing its behaviour based on this distinction, hence the choice of ‘value’. It is not specified by the distinguished element, it is determined by the internal structure of the system and the dynamics between the system and the environment it’s structurally coupled with. This and the fact that value-making is a sense-making of a higher-order, is where the preference for ‘making’ comes from.

Only a small part of the environment, a niche, is constantly changing its content, is being interacted with, and actually matters. The niche is not one niche but a network of dynamically changing and influencing each other niches. A family is one niche, but that’s not the family described by somebody knowing all the facts, and not the family which will be invariant for each of the family members. The family as a niche is the subjective construction of interactions, memories, emotions, attention and imagination unique for every member of the family, as long as they consider themselves as such. This could easily exclude actual members and include those that have a lasting experience as such. And the same applies to work circle and friends circle, as to all occasional and recurring encounters, and virtual communities. But then, apart from interactions with other humans, we also have a niche out of the air we breathe, the grass we walk on, the stairs we climb and descend. And all that, changed by us, is changing us and changing the way we change it. But those changes, as long as a system is viable, serve to protect the identity from changing. We take from our niche things to make them into more of ourselves and become better in doing so.

Unlike the air, the grass and the stairs, a family or an organisation are autonomous systems which maintain their identity. They have their own niches. Moreover they are social systems. There are different ways to look at them. One way would be as autopoietic systems of communications, having humans as their niche (Luhmann), and another would be to have humans as both sub-systems and niche depending on weather the processes they participate in are part of the closed network of processes creating the identity of the system in focus. And that can be talked about in terms of the roles humans play.

Now we are ready to see what the role of meaning has to do with the meaning of roles. A living bacterium is at a stage of development where the sense-making has transcended into value-making. It does not only distinguish an environment with low from that with high sucrose concentration but prefers and moves towards the latter. As Evan Thompson put it, while sucrose is a “present condition of the environment, the status of the sucrose as a nutrient is not”, “it is a relational feature, linked to the bacterium metabolism”. And this is how the creation of meaning and roles are co-dependant. The dynamics between the bacterium and its environment, by making the sucrose relevant for the viability of the bacterium, realises the role of sucrose as nutrient.

But that’s not only relevant for cells and living organisms. It’s applicable for social systems as well. A company acts so that to turn some part of the environment into employees, other into clients, partners and so on. And for the same reason as the bacterium – to maintain it’s viability.

Once a formal role of an employee is assigned by a contract, a less formal roles are enabled by different mechanisms. It is now common to refer to such mechanisms as ‘Governance’ or an essential part of it. That part is a meta-role assigned to some people to determine the role of others. One and the same person often plays several roles.

Roles can be determined by formal assignment, by methodology, or by a Governance body but they can be also invented and self-assigned by the actors themselves, as typical for the organisations researched by Frederic Laloux. In that case, the evolutionary nature and the granularity of the roles are both dealing with the pathologies of assigned roles (being status currency, perpetuated even when obsolete, determined by politics and so on) and making organisations more responsive to change. Again the system, by what it does, takes from its environment what it needs to make more of itself, recursively: it turns non-employees into employees and vice versa,  and employees take up and leave roles, as determined by the dynamics of their interactions.

And so it seems that the meaning of roles is continuously realised by the role of meaning as a way in which a system generates its niche by asserting itself and maintaining its viability.

Language and meta-language for Enterprise Architecture

That was the topic of a talk I gave in October 2014 at an Enterprise Architecture event in London.

Most of the slides are available as PDF slidedeck on Slideshare.

They probably don’t tell the story by themselves, and I’m not going to help them here unless this post provokes a discussion. What I’ll do instead is clarify the title. “Language” refers to the means of describing organisations. They could be different. Given the current state of maturity, I have found those based on description logic to be very useful. What I meant by the “current state of maturity” is that a method in its theoretical development, application, the technologies supporting it and the experience with their application justifies investments in utilising them and helping in their further development. Although I find such a language clearly superior to the alternatives in use, that doesn’t mean there are no issues and that no approaches are showing convincing solutions to those issues. However, the practice with the latter or with the available tools doesn’t give me enough reason to stand behind them. The situation with the “meta-language” is similar, but let’s first clarify why I call it that.

Metalanguage is commonly defined as language about language. If that was the meaning I intended, these notes here could have been referred to as a mixture of another meta- and a meta-meta-language. That’s not the case. But to clarify the intended meaning of “meta,” I need to first clarify “language.”

I have found that there is a need to describe properly the “objects” that people in organisations are concerned with and how they relate to each other. It could be some way of representing physical things such as buildings, documents and servers or abstract concepts such as services, processes and capabilities. And although it relates also to abstract things, I sometimes call it “language for the substance”.

Organisations are autonomous and adaptive systems, continuously maintained by their interaction with their niche, the latter being brought forth from the background, by that very interaction. While a language such as the one proposed can be useful to understand the components of an organisation, it doesn’t help much in understanding the dynamics and viability. The language for the substance cannot be used to talk about the form. That’s why there is a need, maybe temporarily until we find a better solution and probably a single language, to have another language and that other language I called meta-language in the presentation.

As this is a language for the form, I keep looking for ways to utilise some proposals. One nominee is George Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form (this post includes a brief introduction). Papers like this one of Dirk Baecker give me hope that it is possible. Until then, for the purposes of Enterprise Architecture, I find the Viable System Model, with the whole body of knowledge and practice associated with it, as the most pragmatic meta-language.


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