notes on information organizations

July 8, 2010

Why heroes are bad but mainly about rethinking systems in the enterprise

Filed under: complex systems, information technology — Frank Cervone @ 12:20 pm

In the June 15th edition of CIO magazine, Jeanne Ross discusses some merging aspects of information technology we all should consider. Although the advice to “ignore the technology” is subject to misinterpretation and somewhat naive, the basic metaconcept stands – information technology needs to be about how an organization functions as an enterprise. One off solutions that optimize small pieces of the organization will not work in today’s environment. We need to look at things holistically and work to develop systems from that perspective.

This, interestingly, is where the whole “heroes are bad” idea comes into play. According to Ross, we used to say “do something brilliant and whatever the customer wants.” This created a culture where IT people would perform heroic feats to get things done but that doesn’t work anymore. Heroism is too unpredictable and tends to “just mess up everybody else.” If we do things well in the first place, heroic behaviors will become a thing of the past.


March 20, 2010

managing scale

Filed under: complex systems — Frank Cervone @ 10:37 am

In his blog post yesterday “Dean Dad” discussed the problems of scale. Although he was discussing teaching interventions, his observations are equally valid in relationship to information technology and libraries. His basic point is that the results of projects where a large amount of money is invested in a small scale problem are irrelevant to solving real-world problems.

I agree. While grant funding can be very useful for getting a project started, the problem with many grant-funded projects is that little consideration is given to how the intervention of the grant project can be operationalized or scaled-up to real world proportions. This often results in projects that demonstrate the usefulness of a particular approach; however, the approach cannot be practically implemented at any scale where it would actually make any difference in addressing the basic problem.

Given that in most cases simply throwing more resources at each and every problem isn’t feasible, we need to develop approaches that are more practical. Generally, this means developing ways of being more productive within the current environment. In the academic environment, this has led to a focus on outcomes and assessment.

Developing outcomes (and assessment of those outcomes) provides the framework for developing ways of working more efficiently and focusing on the things that are most important. Since we can’t do everything and will never have the funding to do so anyway, we need to have models and practices in place that inform us what the most important things really are and how we can best focus our efforts on address those issues.

May 16, 2007

complexity, libraries, and web design

Filed under: change, complex systems, complexity, innovation — Frank Cervone @ 9:32 pm

At Computers in Libraries a couple of weeks ago, Ellyssa Kroski gave a talk about Information Design for the New Web. What I found particularly interesting, in addition to the design tips, was how this presentation demonstrated so vividly the point that libraries exist within a complex system. While complexity in the sense of a complex system was never mentioned in her presentation, the clear dependency of our library environment on the external world was demonstrated in the fact that all of the examples on how libraries need to be designing their services were drawn from outside of libraryland.

The message from this isn’t particularly new, but it is clear: we must take our clues and directions from our environment. Libraries do not exist in an isolated or rarified world and our environment is being determined within a larger context that is not under our direct control. Even in the most traditional environments, the world expects differ things for us today. If we do not meet the expectations of the environment, the other systems with which we interact, such as our patron populations, will adapt and meet their needs in ways that are better suited to their needs. If that doesn’t include us, it’s not going to be a big concern for them, so it better be for us.

May 3, 2007

what is a complex system?

Filed under: complex systems, complexity — Frank Cervone @ 11:26 am

If you ask 10 different people what a complex system is you are likely to get 13 different answers because the term complex system has been used in many disciplines, but not in a consistent way. There is a common theme that brings all these differing uses together though and that theme is an attempt to understand the implications and context of how various types of systems work. In contrast to the classical reductionist approach, which break things down into discrete components for analysis, complexity theory takes a much broader, macro-level view. Complex systems analysis acknowledges that systems (whether in a computer or among the people you work with) do not exist in a vacuum and are influenced by that environment, often in ways that are not seemingly apparent.

Some features of complex systems are that they:

  • remember in the sense that what has already happened usually influences what will happen next; however, that influence may be completely unpredictable,
  • “learn”, meaning that feedback into the system affects the way individual elements (and the system overall, of course) subsequently work. This feedback, therefore, alters elements and system overall, although not necessarily affecting everything in the same way,
  • do not have easily defined boundaries as in most complex systems it is not clear where one system begins and another ends,
  • can be recursive in the sense that the components of a complex system may be complex systems that themselves contain complex systems and so forth,
  • exhibit emergent behavior, which are properties of the interactions of the system that can only be studied at a high level. In most cases, these behaviors are undetectable at the element level.

In future posts, my intent is to take a look at how these concepts apply to libraries as well as begin to explore the implications of this. A nice overview of complex systems by Gershenson and Heylighen can be found at

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