I’ve been working on a problem that has to do with standards, enforcement, and the notion of a software development ‘community’ in the workplace.

As you may know, I’m a member of the IT Enterprise Architecture team.  We are responsible for creating a vision of where our IT and Application infrastructure will be in five years, charting a course to get there, and then poking (hard) at the business if they want to take the easy way out and go some other direction.

That last part is called Governance:  How to make sure that we all go in the direction that we all agreed to go.

We do this in our own communities.  I vote for civic leaders, they pass laws (with my consent, hopefully) and I obey them.  That’s a democracy.  Problem is: a business is not a democracy.  At best, it is a benign monarchy.  At worst, it is a dictatorship.  But it is nearly never a democracy.

And that takes two key elements out of the loop.  The folks being governed lose the right to say “who” will govern them, and the list of things they have to agree to, the laws, are not born of their concensus, but rather thrust upon them.  Is it fair to call this governance?

So, in the absense of a pure democracy, how do we put back these elements: control over who and what.

One thing we are working on is creating the concept of IT communities of practice.  In Microsoft IT, there are over a dozen different IT organizations that are almost completely independent of one another.  So an application designer working in one group, supporting the World Wide Licensing program, for example, wouldn’t normally know the name of an application designer working in the IT group that supports Microsoft Consulting Services. 

So, if we group people by what they do, developers, testers, designers, architects, project managers, etc, we begin to form the ‘body politic’ that can become responsible for their own future.

With that body, if we can have them create self-appointed committees to determine what changes in policy that they believe should occur, then we get the beginnings of a notion of legislative power.  (The problem is that a policy change that is good for a developer may be bad for a tester, and the testers won’t get to know about it.)

At the center, instead of an elected administration atop a civil service, you get an appointed executive (the CIO), his appointees, and the civil service (Enterprise Architecture, EPMO, Six Sigma teams, plus others I’m not aware of).  This administration has to take the suggested policy changes from the communities and decide which ones to implement.

So, do we get the voluntary compliance in this structure that we see in a democratic environment?  I’m not sure.  We will get more folks engaged in self-determination.  But, on the other hand, I’ve met very few people, myself included, who think that the suggestion coming from “someone else” to tackle “problem X” is better than the solution “I’m already working on.” 

In other words, if the ‘body politic’ suggests a change, and the administration vetos it, is there an override?  In a democracy, the administration is compelled to perform the will of the people, but not in a corporation.  A legislative body that serves a king is about as effective as the parliment of Kuwait. 

I suggest a way to get around this problem. 

Tell the communities of practice the list of areas that are “off limits” for their suggestions.  Define their scope in the negative, as in “You can touch anything except X, Y, and Z.”  Then make a committment, a real honest committment, from the executive level, that the suggestions created by one community, and accepted by all, shall be implemented in a visible manner as long as it doesn’t rewire X, Y, or Z. 

Effectively, this is the same as allowing municipal democracy in a centrally-controlled state (a model that I hope China will adopt, BTW, so that all those local conflicts over land use can settle down). 

Can a corporation withstand the notion of municipal democracy?  I don’t know.  I do know that the model works from an economic standpoint.  Municipal democracies tend to be the most pragmatic forms of government in a democracy, primarily because they are focused on local issues (schools, trains, roads, polics, and fire, for example).  It is municipal democracy that allows the administration at the federal level to focus on strategic issues, instead of being mired in the tactical. In a corporation, that is the CEO, and strategic is where we want him.

So, as we reinvent the notion of governance, where does that leave Enterprise Architecture?  In the civil service. 

Fascinating.