Gartner Blog Network

Collapsonomics of IT

by Nick Gall  |  September 12, 2011  |  1 Comment

[This is a response to an excellent post by JP Rangaswami entitled Wond’ring Aloud. I’m posting it here because the comment system on JP’s blog so mangled my HTML reply that it is almost unreadable. Please read JP’s post before attempting to read my comments below. Enjoy both of them! -NG]

JP, Gartner is embracing Stewart Brand’s pace layering concept and his related shearing layer concept in several ways. One way we are using it is to apply pace layers to application portfolio management. This is the work referenced by Sukumar in his post. Here is a blog post on the subject that gives a bit more detail on how we’re applying it: Is It Time to Rethink Your Enterprise Application Portfolio Strategy? (The rest is behind the Gartner paywall.)

But we’re also applying pace layers, shearing layers, and what I call generally “temporal frameworks” in combination with enterprise architecture to create what we call panarchitecture. This is more in line with your thinking on Trainter and the cyclical collapse of complex systems. It turns out that there is a fairly well developed framework for analyzing the cyclical nature of such collapses. It’s called Panarchy, and it’s been developed by the ecologist “Buzz” Holling and others over the past twenty years or so.

Panarchy models ecosystems as complex networks of adaptive cycles of various sizes and speeds. One of the key insights of Panarchy is that larger systems cycle through periods of sustained growth (called the front loop) and collapse/reorganization (called the back loop) more slowly than smaller systems. It is the interactions between the small fast loops and the big slow ones–called revolt and remembrance–that actually drives evolution.

So in response to your questions:

Which makes me wonder. What Tainter wrote about societies,  what Shirky wrote about companies, are we about to witness something analogous in the systems world? A collapse of a monolith, consumed by its own growth and complexity? As against the simpler, fractal approach of ecosystems?

Yes, we are already witnessing something analogous in the (IT) systems world. Many of our most complex hw/sw systems are collapsing due to the growth in their complexity over the past several decades. And yes, simpler architectures will emerge from the collapse. But what Panarchy teaches us is that every ecosystem, both natural and metaphorical, starts out simple–composed of fragments of the previous ecosytem–and inexorably accretes greater and greater complexity until some release is triggered, and it too collapses.

And the biggest paradox of all is that these interconnected cycles of growth, collapse, and renewal are what make natural ecosystems so resilient! There is no escaping collapse, for it is essential to evolution. Accordingly, to make human-made systems more resilient, we must embrace collapse and renewal, not suppress it.

If you’d like to read more about Gartner’s Panarchitecture (an outgrowth of our work in design thinking), here is a blog post on the subject (Panarchitecture: Architecting a Network of Resilient Renewal) and a research note that is not behind the paywall (From Hierarchy to Panarchy: Hybrid Thinking’s Resilient Network of Renewal).

If you’d like to read some work integrating Tainter’s thinking with Holling’s thinking, check out Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down and his concept of catagenesis (roughly analogous to Panarchy). Several others, like Noah Raford, are working in this area. I’m delighted to hear you’ll be looking more deeply into this area. We’d love to have you join us!

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Category: enterprise-architecture  hybrid-thinking  panarchitecture  

Nicholas Gall
VP Distinguished Analyst
14 years at Gartner
35 years IT industry

Nick Gall is a vice president in Gartner Research. As a founding member of Gartner’s Enterprise Planning and Architecture Strategies, Mr. Gall advises clients on enterprise strategies for interoperability, innovation and execution. Mr. Gall is a leading authority on middleware… Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Collapsonomics of IT

  1. Nick,

    I actually wanted to comment on two other discussions: Hybrid Thinking and the blog on the Army’s effort in Design Thinking. I have been a designer for many years…first applications, then systems, then processes (and systems to support them) and now businesses (and processes to support them).

    Since 2004 I have focused my energies on applying design thinking at the business level. During that time I have developed a deep appreciation and understanding of the difference between design and strategy and have created a process which can be used independent of government agency, for-profit business, non-profit organization or even at a department level. The principles are the same for designing those entities as they are for designing products and processes.

    My approach is very complete and has been ‘battle tested’. It isn’t surprising to see that we have some items in common such as starting with Goals and using the concept of Top-down design. After all Form Follows Function. And I too have a five-step iterative process that can be used for “sustained performance” – the goal of every business entity.

    I would enjoy exchanging some ideas about Design and Hybrid Thinking. For instance, one of the understandings I have come to through working in this area is that the elusive alignment business leaders seek is only possible through Design. Alignment is designed into an organization and then managed. It cannot be managed into an organization.

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