EA and philosophy: a distillation of key points

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at http://avancier.website. Last updated 08/11/2018 00:00


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


The enterprise as a system.. 1

The science of systems thinking. 2

Approaching philosophy. 3

The philosophy of systems thinking. 4

Enterprise systems. 5

Conclusions and remarks. 6


The enterprise as a system

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.


It is commonly said that “enterprise architecture views the enterprise as a system, or system of systems”.

But there are profound misunderstandings of what this means.

To call every problem, situation or business “a system” is unhelpful.

It is important to distinguish a social network from a social system.


A social network in which people communicate

An enterprise is a social network.

It may reasonably be argued that people matter more than 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 enterprise architecture are usually addressed in parallel, by a business change team.


A social system in which people realise role and rules

Business systems can be seen as formalised social systems.

The actors play roles in performing activities according to rules.

Their activities are determined by messages received and memories retained.

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


An enterprise is a social network that realises many social and technological systems.

Architects may find some systems overlap, duplicate or even conflict with each other.


Changing the roles or rules of a system makes a new system or system version.

Enterprise architects apply some change control to large-scale, generational, system change.

The science of systems thinking

This earlier paper concludes with the following points about systems.


Reality and descriptions of it

The systems of interest here are islands of orderly behavior in the ever-unfolding process of the universe.

Especially systems in which entities act (systematically) in response to information encoded in messages and memories.

And usually, systems in which that information describes or directs some entities or events in reality.

Our descriptions of reality are digital in the sense that we divide reality into discrete entities (structures) and events (behaviors). 2


Animal memories and messages

Only some descriptions of reality prove useful when tested.

Communication requires that a receiver decodes the same meaning from a message that a sender intentionally encodes in that message. 3


Human communications

Only humans invent words to symbolise things and their qualities.

The written record revolutionised our ability to think deeply, think straight, remember things and communicate. 5


Human languages, natural and artificial

The fluidity and imprecision of natural language enables human creativity and assists survival in a changing world.

For a system description to be holistic, unambiguous and testable, an artificial domain-specific language is needed.

A domain-specific language is an island of inter-related words with stable meanings, in the ever-unfolding evolution of natural language.


Thinking about systems  9

A system description is a complex type that symbolises the structures and the behaviors of each entity that realises the system.

To make testable assertions about a system’s behavior, we specify processes by their pre and post conditions.

A concrete system is composed of actors performing activities.

An abstract system typifies actors in role descriptions and activities in rule descriptions.

A role is a list of activities performable by an actor.

A rule is a precondition or post condition of an activity.

Approaching philosophy

Philosophy is concerned with questions about the existence of mental and physical phenonema.

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?


What “existence” means is open to question.

Matter and energy exists, but is deeply mysterious, beyond our full comprehension.

Our perceptions, descriptions and mental models of material reality also exist in material form.

Both in mental phenomena and in external representations of them in speech, writing and other forms.


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.




<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. 

The philosophy of systems thinking

This earlier paper concluded with the following notes on philosophy


In so far as philosophy is about emotions, passions and ideals, it seems to have been overtaken by biological and psychological sciences.

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

Contrary to Cartesian dualism, the modern view (cognitive embodiment) sees the mind as a part of the body rather than separable from it.

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.


In so far as philosophy is about language, knowledge and truth, it seems to have been overtaken by biological and software sciences.


Wisdom is the ability to respond effectively to knowledge.


Knowledge is information that is accurate or true enough to be useful.

Knowledge represents what exists well enough to help us manipulate what exists, and predict its behavior.

Knowledge is acquired in various ways.

We learn from a mix of evidence, experience of the world, interaction with family, teachers and peers and logical analysis.

I call myself an empiricist, because I believe in testing assertions by gathering evidence.

But also believe that some things can reasonably be concluded from logical analysis.

In my view, radical constructivism and post-modernism undermine science and its importance to society.


Information is meaning created or found in a structure by an actor.

Regarding information or meaning, the hermeneutics principle makes innocent speakers guilty of causing offence where none was intended.

What matters, what must be investigated, is whether speakers and hearers share the same language for encoding and decoding a message.


Data is a structure of matter/energy in which information has been created or found.

Facts are encoded in the data structure by a sender and can be decoded from it by a receiver.


Regarding language, whether there is some truth in structuralism or not, the human mind is plastic and language is infinitely flexible.

To describe a testable system, an artificial domain-specific language is needed.


Regarding determinism: at a micro level (above quantum mechanics) the world we experience is deterministic.

The next discernible event is predictable (at least in theory).

At a macro level, the world we experience appears indeterminate, and long term outcomes are unpredictable (aka chaotic).

At a psychological and sociological level we have no reasonable or acceptable option but to treat people of sound mind as having free will.


Both holist and reductionist views of a system are important and helpful different times.

Enterprise systems

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.


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.


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.

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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