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)

    • daviding: Will this decade be May 27, 2020
      Will this decade be called the "Dark Twenties", in post-pandemic economic sociology? #JohnIbbitson writes: > It took years for Western economies to fully recover from the economic shock of 2008-09. This shock is far worse. How much worse? No one can be sure. [....] > We are entering the Dark Twenties. No one knows when […]
    • daviding: Moderating social me May 27, 2020
      Moderating social media context in an nuanced way may be done with a warning or caution, rather than by deleting the message or banning the individual. #HenryFarrell at #WashingtonPost analyzes fact-checking on POTUS. > Now, Twitter has done just this. Trump’s tweet has not been removed — but it has been placed behind a notice, […]
    • daviding: Our immune systems a May 26, 2020
      Our immune systems are complex, so improving resistance to disease may be puffery, writes #TimothyCaulfield . > I looked at how the phrase “boosting our immune system” is being represented on social media. This concept is everywhere right now: it is being pushed by .... But in reality, the immune system is fantastically complex and can’t be “boosted.” (Even […]
    • daviding: Ventures founded on May 17, 2020
      Ventures founded on growth maximization thinking unicorn might instead turn towards sustainability as camels. > Where Silicon Valley has been chasing unicorns (a colloquial term for startups with billion-dollar valuations), “camel” startups, such as those founded by leading global entrepreneurs, prioritize sustainability and resiliency.> The humble camel adapts to multiple climates, survives without food or […]
    • daviding: Death of the office, May 17, 2020
      Death of the office, in pandemic times, with a larger perspective back in history. > Offices have always been profoundly flawed spaces. Those of the East India Company, among the world’s first, were built more for bombast than bureaucracy. They were sermons in stone, and the solidity of every marble step, the elegance of every […]
  • RSS on IngBrief

    • 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 […]
    • Systemic Change, Systematic Change, Systems Change (Reynolds, 2011)
      It's been challenging to find sources that specifically define two-word phrases -- i.e. "systemic change", "systematic change", "systems change" -- as opposed to loosely inferring reductively from one-word definitions in recombination. MartinReynolds @OpenUniversity clarifies uses of the phrases, with a critical eye into motives for choosing a specific label, as well as associated risks and […]
    • Environmental c.f. ecological (Francois, 2004; Allen, Giampietro Little 2003)
      The term "environmental" can be mixed up with "ecological", when the meanings are different. We can look at the encyclopedia definitions (François 2004), and then compare the two in terms of applied science (i.e. engineering with (#TimothyFHAllen @MarioGiampietro and #AmandaMLittle, 2003).
    • Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Analysing, Mapping and Classifying the Critical Response | Dawes and Ostwald | 2017
      While many outside of the field of architecture like the #ChristopherAlexander #PatternLanguage approach, it's not so well accepted by his peers. A summary of criticisms by #MichaelJDawes and #MichaelJOstwald @UNSWBuiltEnv is helpful in appreciating when the use of pattern language might be appropriate or not appropriate.
    • Field (system definitions, 2004, plus social)
      Systems thinking should include not only thinking about the system, but also its environment. Using the term "field" as the system of interest plus its influences leaves a lot of the world uncovered. From the multiple definitions in the International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics , there is variety of ways of understanding "field".
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • RSS on daviding.com

    • 2020/04 Moments April 2020
      Living in social isolation in our house with 5 family members, finishing off teaching courses and taking courses.
    • 2020/03 Moments March 2020
      The month started with a hectic coincidence of events as both a teacher and student at two universities, abruptly shifting to low gear with government directives for social distancing.
    • 2020/02 Moments February 2020
      Winter has discouraged enjoying the outside, so more occasions for friend and family inside.
    • 2020/01 Moments January 2020
      Back to school, teaching and learning at 2 universities.
    • 2019/12 Moments December 2019
      First half of December in finishing up course assignments and preparing for exams; second half on 11-day family vacation in Mexico City.
    • 2019/11 Moments November 2019
      Wrapped up paperwork on closing out family buildings in Gravenhurst, returned to classes and technical conferences in usual pattern of learning.
  • 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