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Anatomy of Agile Enterprise

Janne J. Korhonen

When Less Is Too Much

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Sometimes less is too much. Inexorably, at some point, the organization or logic of a system that has worked well in the past turns out inadequate in the face of changing environmental circumstances. The inherent limits of system resilience -- the ability of the system to absorb perturbations in its stability domain -- are reached and the system must transform to survive. This can occur at any scale. For instance, a person cannot quite cope with his/her new job role but needs to grow to the new demands; an organization cannot grow indefinitely and maintain its original form; or the very underpinnings of the economy are threatened, as is now alarmingly apparent.

The "bifurcation point" at the "edge of chaos" is a revolutionary moment that opens a "window of opportunity" for reorganizing a system at a higher, more differentiated and coherent order of functioning. This "dissipative structure" requires more energy to sustain it than the simpler structure, which it replaced, but its resilience in the new stability domain is higher. It is also possible that the bifurcation point leads to the disintegration of the system into chaos: the person suffers a setback; the organization falls; or the economy collapses.

The ecological literature identifies two very different notions of resilience. The traditional notion of engineering resilience is focused on maintaining efficiency of function and stability near an equilibrium steady state. It is measured by resistance to disturbance and speed of return to the equilibrium. The second definition, termed as ecosystem resilience, comes into play in far-from-equilibrium conditions, where the system may enter another stability domain. This type of resilience is focused on maintaining existence of function and measured by the magnitude of disturbance that can be absorbed before the system changes its structure. (Gunderson and Holling, 2002).

Gunderson and Holling (2002) point out that exclusive emphasis on engineering resilience "reinforces the dangerous myth that the variability of natural systems can be effectively controlled, that the consequences are predictable, and that sustained maximum production is an attainable and sustainable goal". It is based on the assumption of global stability -- that the system's local variables should be manipulated to maintain the target steady state, notwithstanding alternative operating states. While the variability can be successfully limited to stay on target, the ignorance to slowly changing variables in the overall stability landscape subtly shrinks the system's ecosystem resilience.

Equilibrium-seeking system views (static, reactive and responsive) must necessarily ignore or attempt to suppress anomalies that bear the seeds of future patterns of behavior. With the primary goal of protecting and sustaining the status quo for as long as possible, the still-prevalent command-and-control approaches to management and governance often fall seriously short in today's increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business environment.

To fully grok multiple systems and their interrelationships and systems that undergo radical transformation, a (co-)evolving system view is required. Rather than seeking stability and avoiding disruptions, this view acknowledges the reality of multiple equilibria (potential alternative states) and embraces resilient renewal, as the circumstances require. It emphasizes creating auspicious conditions for adaptive self-organization and endogenous emergence of new structures, not on rigid imposition of any predetermined orderly system.

Intentional design, implementation and maintenance of pertinent organizational and governance (meta-)structures does dissipate energy, but under certain conditions any less is simply too much.

Janne J. Korhonen provides insights into how information technology can be applied strategically to catalyze organizational change and responsiveness. Drawing from both theory and practice, he discusses agile enterprise and its governance.

Janne J. Korhonen

Janne J. Korhonen is an independent business and IT consultant,specializing in enterprise architecture, business process management,service-oriented architecture and pertinent governance models. He has over ten years of experience as an architect and consultant in a variety of extensive and mission-critical IT projects. With strong theoretical underpinnings, his consulting encompasses systemic co-development of business, organization and information technology.

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