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 *

  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • RSS qoto.org/@daviding (Mastodon)

    • New status by daviding July 14, 2019
      Agriculture responds to climate change, with chicken farmers switching to ducks, and shrimp fisherman switching to crabs. > The advantages of ducks for farmers such as Akter [in Bangladesh] are several. Chickens catch infections much more easily than ducks do when they get wet, too hot, or too cold, Helal Uddin, the BRAC agriculturalist who […]
    • New status by daviding June 23, 2019
      Single Large or Several Small (SLOSS) sees a systems approach where individuals care for their property in a way that benefits all. > ... while emphasizing connectivity may help threatened species be more resilient, Dr. Fahrig says that it should not be taken as a reason to disregard small pockets of nature that are not […]
    • New status by daviding May 19, 2019
      Fit the people around an organization; or an organization around the people? Working backwards, say @MitroffCrisis + #HaroldLinstone, from current concrete choices to uncertain futures, surfaces strategic assumptions in a collective decision, better than starting with an abstract scorecard to rank candidates. The Unbounded Mind is an easier-reading follow-on to The Design of Inquiry Systems […]
    • New status by daviding April 28, 2019
      Our house is on the edge of a flood plain. We know this, because the end of our street in Toronto Riverside was at Lake Ontario, before landfill in the early 1900s. Not everyone knows about what's under the place where they live. "Poor flood-risk maps, or none at all, are keeping Canadian communities in […]
    • New status by daviding April 26, 2019
      An open education system encourages scholarship that embraces perspectives from around the world. The Scholar Rescue Fund is a hopeful initiative that, in a perfect world, wouldn't have to exist. "Canada playing major role as safe haven for at-risk academics from strife-torn countries" | Danielle Edwards | April 23, 2019 | Globe & Mail at […]
  • RSS on IngBrief

  • RSS on Media Queue

  • RSS on daviding.com

    • 2019/06 Moments June 2019
      Summer arrived in Toronto, with the month ending in travel to BC and Oregon.
    • 2019/05 Moments May 2019
      Family time, empty nest, short trip to conference nearby, friends at home.
    • 2019/04 Moments April 2019
      End of a 23-day visit in Shanghai, readjusting to Eastern Time with the many lecture, meetup, friends and family distractions of Toronto.
    • 2019/03 Moments March 2019
      Month of intensive lectures and research meetings, in Toronto and then in Shanghai, with social breaks on local excursions to clear minds.
    • 2019/02 Moments February 2019
      Reduced exercise outside with a cold and snowy February, with excursions out of the house to warm places with family, friends and colleagues.
    • 2019/01 Moments January 2019
      January in Toronto has lots of intellectual offerings and artistic exhibitions to attract the curious out of warm homes, through cold and snow.
  • 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