Language and meta-language for EA

That was the topic of a talk I gave in October last year at an Enterprise Architecture event in London. These are the slides, or most of them, anyway.

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 a clarification about 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 there are no approaches showing convincing solution 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. And if that was the meaning I intended, it would have that type of relation to the language and then probably what I’m writing here could have been referred to as a mixture of another meta- and a meta-meta-language. It wasn’t the meaning I intended. 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 about 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 of the most fascinating being 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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