EA and philosophy

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at http://avancier.website. Last updated 11/09/2018 17:04


The role of enterprise architects is to observe baseline systems, envisage target systems, and describe both.

So, you might assume it is universally agreed what a "system" is; but this is far from the case.

The work introduced here sets out to provide a stronger theoretical foundation for enterprise architecture.


Enterprises as systems. 1

Description, reality and philosophy. 2

Conclusions and remarks. 4


Enterprises as systems

In business operations, it may reasonably be argued that people matter more than systems.

Nevertheless, most modern businesses depend on systems that are designed and changed under change control.

And enterprise architects are concerned with the design and planning of those systems.


The culture of an enterprise has a huge impact on which operational systems can be changed or introduced.

Culture also has a huge impact on the ability of enterprise architects to propose change in the first place.

Enterprise architects must be sensitive to cultures at both operational and strategic levels, and are influenced by them.

That does not mean that enterprise architects are employed to propose or design cultural change.

The social impacts of changes to activity systems are usually addressed in parallel, by a business change team.


Classical system theory gives us insights into a wide variety of disciplines.

It leads towards theories of information and communication.

It leads towards answers to philosophical questions about description and reality.

And helps us to make sense of what enterprise architecture is about.


Enterprise architecture is about:

·         Open (rather than closed) systems, which deliver services to consumers.

·         Designed (rather than natural) systems, which need analysis and design effort.

·         Purposive (rather than accidentally evolved) systems, which have measurable aims.

·         Information (rather than material) processing systems, which formalise messages and memories.


Formalisation of messages and memories

Enterprises are social entities in which actors exchange information.

Business activity systems can be seen as formalised social systems.

The actors perform activities according to messages received and memories retained.

The contents of memories and messages are defined as data structures composed of business data types.


Change management

A meta system is one that observes, envisages or describes the roles and rules of another system.

An enterprise architecture function is a meta system for changing an enterprise's business systems

An enterprise architecture framework is a reasonably scientific approach to describing systems.

It helps architects describe operational systems in a way that can be tested and implemented – under change control.

The social impacts of changes are usually addressed in parallel, by a business change team.


Holistic optimisation

An enterprise architecture function takes a holistic view of business activities that create and use business data.

Architects take a cross-organisational and strategic view of the enterprise’s business systems.

They strive to standardise and integrate discrete business systems.


However, seeing the whole enterprise as one system is a vision rather than a reality.

Partly because different business functions/capabilities have their own domain-specific languages.

And partly because large businesses suffer the diseconomies of scale.


Generally, an enterprise is as many different activity systems as you are able to describe and test

Calling an enterprise a system without reference to a particular system description means next to nothing.

Not only can an enterprise be conceptualised as countless different systems.

But also, those systems may be nested, overlapping, disparate, duplicative, cooperative or antagonistic.


System description

Architects identify, design, plan and govern changes to business activity systems - under change control.

They describe a system in a way that can be used to test an operational system, and analyse the impact of changes.

They describe a system from several viewpoints:

·         External and internal views

·         Structural and behavior views

·         Logical and physical views.

Description, reality and philosophy

A system is a subdivision of the universe we can describe as a system.

A Darwinian explanation of description starts long before words.

It starts from the notion that organisms can recognise family resemblances between things.

And so recognise when a new thing is of a kind important to survival, or resembles a previously remembered thing.

Eventually, evolution led to humans, verbal language and our sophisticated creation and use of “types”.

Typification is fundamental to system theory

We describe system structures and behaviors by typifying them.


Philosophers have looked at description and reality in many ways – both overlapping and contrary.

Many people’s instinct is to divide the universe into mental and physical worlds.

The view taken today in cognitive science and psychology is that the mind has a physical biological basis.


First, one has to shake off:

·         the mental/physical dichotomy presumed in Cartesian Dualism (after Descartes)

·         a human-centric view of the universe

·         a language-centric view of philosophy.


Then acknowledge that:

·         describers are actors who have some intelligence about their environment

·         the ability of actors to describe the world is a side effect of biological evolution

·         the first description was a biological model of some kind, and brains evolved to retain descriptive mental models of perceptions

·         in natural intelligence, the mental world is physical – though the bio-chemistry of that is deeply mysterious

·         in artificial intelligence, the most notable ability is the ability to abstract descriptive types from observations of similar things.


And finally, acknowledge that:

·         descriptions include all signs, all models, all encodings of perceptions, private and public

·         mental, spoken, written, audio, visual and physical models are all descriptions

·         humans and their machines can translate a description of any kind into a description of another kind

·         describers and descriptions are themselves part of reality - and can themselves be described (if need be).


The philosophy here can be expressed in a triangle.


The nub of our philosophy

Descriptions (private & public)

<create and use>                   <idealise>

Describers     <observe & envisage>     Realities


The process of observing reality starts in perception.

The process of envisaging reality starts in dream-like or consciously-directed brain activity.

Both processes result in the creation of descriptive/mental models.

Describers translate descriptions from private to public forms, and back again.


Today, there is little debate about the existence of material realities.

Most presume that there is physical matter/energy out there.

The questions to be answered are rather the ones listed below.


·         What is the nature of description?

·         What is the role of a describer?

·         How to test things match their descriptions?

·         How accurately do describers describe or measure things?

·         What does it mean to exist?

Conclusions and remarks

The work introduced here sets out to provide a stronger theoretical foundation for enterprise architecture.

It turns out that, to provide that foundation, we have to explore wider questions and theories:

·         what it means to call something (a hurricane, a human being, a society, a business, a radio) a system

·         how "general system theory" and "systems thinking" differ, and can sometimes be contrary to each other


Some systems thinking discussion eviscerates the meaning of "system" until the term is a noise word.

This encourages people to discount system theory ideas, or never learn them in the first place.

Leaving those people ill-equipped to think about anything using system theory ideas to be discussed.


Later papers analyse the notions of system theory with reference to:

·         theories of description, types, communication and information

·         philosophical questions about description and reality - how they differ and relate.


The analysis leads towards a coherent and consistent understanding of these matters.

The findings and conclusions can help both authors and users of enterprise architecture standards.

They can help readers detect and resolve ambiguities and contradictions in "systems thinking".

They could help scientists in different disciplines to use the term "system" more consistently.

Moreover, they may provide food for thought for philosophers about the description/reality distinction.



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