Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Metaphors and Models

What is a business?  How can (or should) an expert business practitioner relay his or her knowledge to another interested party?  Trying to understand these questions leads down a path of debating the merits and demerits of understanding through metaphors, and understanding through models.  This eventually ends up with a discussion of roots in philosophy of science.

During the Seiad project in 1977, Ian Simmonds and I had many discussions about understanding business, filling up the whiteboard in his office at the Watson Research Center.1 My studies into business strategy reflected the two primary foundations:  microeconomics  — Michael Porter is a leading proponent of this approach — and organization theory  — with roots in the research of the Tavistock Institute, and the sociotechnical systems thinking from Fred Emery and Eric Trist.  Add onto that my personal bent towards decision support systems — Peter Keen‘s research while at CISR at the Sloan School at MIT was highly influential — and a strategic view of marketing that can be described as Market-Driven Strategy, as described by George Day.  These all represent models of business.

Ian — as I recall, starting from a side discussion with Doug McDavid — brought up an alternative approach to businesses, with the book: Images of Organization, by Gareth Morgan.  I had a visceral response to this work, because it prescribed the use of metaphors to describe business.  The problem that I’ve found with metaphors is that they relay an initial — and possibly superficial — portrayal of business.  The layman gets an initial comprehension about the subject, but then starts going off the rails as the metaphor becomes overused.  As an example, Stafford Beer wrote books on the Brain of the Firm, and The Heart of Enterprise, that build off models from biological systems.  For a information systems analyst who doesn’t understand that a business is a social system — as would be described by Russell Ackoff — what assumptions would be built into the computer system that he or she was instrumental in developing?

The essential challenge, as Ian and I dug deeper forward, was:  how to we develop a description of business — in our case, it was an industry reference model for consumer goods distribution and retailing.  Doug McDavid had created a more general model in his article on "A standard for business architecture description" in IBM Systems Journal in 1999.  Could we get industry people to buy into a more specific version of this type of modeling?

In real life, despite our information-systems-based interests, business people don’t really care for these types of models.  Sure, they have their own mental models — as Peter Senge describes — but they’re not really interested in hearing a novice regurgitating rigourous depictions of them.  Analysts working towards information systems deconstruct meaning, often drawing lots of charts with bubbles and arrows between them.  These aren’t how the experts understand their worlds.  It’s how someone who doesn’t understand their worlds tries to express a second-hand understanding.

The interesting statistic — it’s written up by Gerry Zaltman in How Customers Think — is that humans speak at a rate of just under 6 metaphors per minute.2 This statistic has at least two implications:

  • charts with bubbles and arrows between them are unlikely to capture the richness of the understanding of content; and
  • the transmission of knowledge from a practitioner deep in the domain to another practitioner in the same domain (at the same or a shallower depth) isn’t probably going to be the same as to an "objective observer" who doesn’t share the same practices (and pool of metaphors).

Thus, no analyst — save for one who may also be cross-trained as a practitioner in the domain — is ever going to be able to replicate the knowledge of an expert.  The analyst may get close to an understanding … but then what about the views and opinions of second (or third) expert who doesn’t quite see things the same way?

I guess that’s why analysis for information systems becomes an exercise in abstraction.  Alternative paths to understand what practitioners really do include Pierre Bourdieu‘s theory of practice, and disclosing new worlds as described by Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores and Hubert Dreyfus.


1 The depth of the discussions reflected our backgrounds.  I spent 8 years in university in the formal study of business:  an undergraduate degree in commerce at the University of Toronto, a master’s degree from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and two years in the doctoral program in the Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of British Columbia, before I joined IBM Canada in the headquarters finance and planning function..  In my studies, I had minored in computer science and had concentrations on Management Information Systems throughout that time.  My childhood included a rich training in business in my father’s furniture and appliance store in Gravenhurst (northern Ontario), and my career path in IBM had led me through the retail and distribution solutions units in IBM.  Ian had studied math at the University of Cambridge, worked in France on the Esprit project, spent some time in IBM’s Toronto Lab, and was settling into the Watson Research Center, on projects related to Insurance Application Architecture.  He had done with research with Haim Kilov, with a particular focus on what has become known as Kilov-Ross Information Modeling.  In some respects, the challenge could have been described as as a typical "system analysis" question.  In reality, because the Seiad project involved IBM Research, we were motivated to develop a deeper understanding of business and information systems, rather than a rushing to a quick-and-dirty answer.

2 I first heard the statistic of "5.8 metaphors per minute" from Jay Ogilvy at a talk at the IBM Advanced Business Institute, on October 14, 1998. In How Customers Think, Gerry Zaltman cites the statistic with a footnote to Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr, "Categorization and Metaphor Understanding", Psychological Review 99, no. 3, (1992).

1 Comment

  • Perhaps in addition to looking at understanding through metaphors and model, we ahould also be looking at symbols.

    Paper in progress…for submission to ISSS 2006

    Working title: “Back to the Future: Towards Visual Communication Systems as an Organizational Process”

    Images, Text, and Actions >>>>Which is the better time saver?

    http://astro.temple.edu/~ruby/wava/worth/sthree.html

    Also see Margaret Mead’s thoughts on anthropology of the visual…

    Under writing, i will discuss the barriers of language, the time consumption of translation, etc. I might also go into the processes used for organization and communication by the “primitive.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • RSS qoto.org/@daviding (Mastodon)

  • RSS on IngBrief

    • The Innovation Delusion | Lee Vinsel, Andrew L. Russell | 2020
      As an irony, the 2020 book, The Innovation Delusion by #LeeVinsel @STS_News + #AndrewLRussell @RussellProf shouldn’t be seen as an innovation, but an encouragement to join @The_Maintainers where an ongoing thought network can continue. The subtitle “How Our Obsession with the New has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most” recognizes actual innovation, as distinct from […]
    • Republishing on Facebook as “good for the world” or “bad for the world” (NY Times, 2020/11/24)
      An online social network reproduces content partially based on algorithms, and partially based on the judgements made by human beings. Either may be viewed as positive or negative. > The trade-offs came into focus this month [November 2020], when Facebook engineers and data scientists posted the results of a series of experiments called “P(Bad for […]
    • 1969, 1981 Emery, System Thinking: Selected Readings
      Social Systems Science graduate students in 1970s-1980s with #RussellAckoff, #EricTrist + #HasanOzbehkhan at U. Pennsylvania Wharton School were assigned the Penguin paperback #SystemsThinking reader edited by #FredEEmery, with updated editions evolving contents.
    • 1968 Buckley, “Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook”
      Resurfacing 1968 Buckley, “Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook” for interests in #SystemsThinking #SocioCybernetics #GeneralSystemsTheory #OrganizationScience . Republication in 2017 hardcopy may be more complete.
    • Wholism, reductionism (Francois, 2004)
      Proponents of #SystemsThinking often espouse holism to counter over-emphasis on reductionism. Reading some definitions from an encyclopedia positions one in the context of the other (François 2004).
    • It matters (word use)
      Saying “it doesn’t matter” or “it matters” is a common expression in everyday English. For scholarly work, I want to “keep using that word“, while ensuring it means what I want it to mean. The Oxford English Dictionary (third edition, March 2001) has three entries for “matter”. The first two entries for a noun. The […]
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • RSS on daviding.com

    • 2020/12 Moments December 2020
      Approaching winter solstice, the temperature in Toronto hovers around freezing, and we see a mix of rain and snow.
    • 2020/11 Moments November 2020
      Day shortening and temperatures dropping meant bundling up for bicycling.
    • 2020/10 Moments October 2020
      Clear autumn near home in Toronto, extended with a family vacation within Canada to Vancouver, where the Covid rates are more favourable
    • 2020/09 Moments September 2020
      Discovering more of the neighbourhood, bicycling mostly in the mornings.
    • 2020/08 Moments August 2020
      Moderate summer temperatures in a city normally overheated with activity, residents gradually emerging as public venues opened cautiously.
    • 2020/07 Moments July 2020
      Daytimes full of new work assignment and training, evenings and weekends bicycling around downtown Toronto as it slowly reopens from pandemic.
  • RSS on Media Queue

  • Meta

  • Creative Commons License
    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
    Theme modified from DevDmBootstrap4 by Danny Machal