Insights

Written by: Neil Brown

We need to have a word about systems, and that word is ‘no’.  If ever there was a term that was more over-used and less helpful, I’ve yet to hear it.  I redden to recall how many systems diagrams I have personally drawn in my career, and how many architectural discussions I’ve attended where ‘system’ was bandied about like it was the trigger word in a drinking game.   But ask any architect for a tight definition for the term and see the beads of sweat form!  If you are lucky you might get them to mumble something about a cluster of people, process, information and technology. But more typically, the term is meant as a synonym for ‘application’, and if there is any term that is less useful than system – it might very well be ‘application’.

So, here we have an ill-defined term, which describes different things to different people and where the boundary between one system and another is a very grey area indeed.  The question therefore has to be, ‘why is this the term that dominates so many investment discussions in organisations up and down the land?’

Organisations do not exist to ‘run systems’ and no customer wants to use one of your systems.  They exist to deliver services to customers.  Unlike system, the term service can be defined precisely using the business outcome it achieves for the customer.  It can be further specified by quality.  There are no overlaps between services, and once you have developed a service catalogue – you will have efficiently implicated every single activity within your organisation.  Whether you are a corner shop – or the Pentagon.  Our experience (here at Effectus) working with both public and private sectors, is that organisations that view themselves through the prism of ‘service’ will be more successful.  It is where the focus ought to be.  So why do so few make this leap?  What is holding people back here?

In general, people can find abstract concepts tricky and service feels like one of those.  The second observation is that more staff appear vested in the implementation, than the business outcome. The irony here is while the word ‘service’ may appear abstract, it isn’t.  Whereas system sounds like a real-world thing but in practice is quite abstract.  I would be very interested to hear if others see this the same way as me.

Viewing your organisation through a service lens will be liberating.  You will be free to consider the best sourcing arrangement for a service, before considering the implementation of any supporting ‘systems’.  It is easier to compare ‘like for like’ services – so it will be easier for you to achieve synergies (internally and across sectors).  It also means a focus on quality of service and on an impartial discussion of the best way to achieve the service outcome.

It has been our pleasure here at Effectus to develop some unique methods for liberating our clients from the ‘shackles’ of system implementation thinking.  We strongly advocate investment in business (and not system) architecture, and for this reason have developed a strong in-house practice.  While I must admit, my service models look quite similar to my system designs – I can say with total seriousness there is no comparison in terms of the relative business value.

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