Organizations do not work, in real life, like they work on paper.  On paper, there are departments (all shaped like a neat rectangle) and business processes with neat inflows and outflows of responsibility and information.  On paper, you improve things by modeling things on paper, and then moving things around, on paper, then teaching people to follow the process that your neat paper diagrams represent.

In real life, there are human beings and the tools that they use.  Sometimes the tools move information from one person to another.  Sometimes, they just aid in communication.  People meet and get to know other people, and they learn to trust some, and distrust others.  Some folks have different measures and motivations and just “pass by” one another.  Some subset of these people will have shared cultural values and expectations.  There may be many cultures in an organization: both because the organization is in multiple places, and because people from multiple places join an organization.  Also, “business culture” arises as leaders achieve successes and people learn to use certain “cultural expectations” to get things done efficiently. 

Reality is a lot messier than pretty rectangles. 

Enterprise Architects apply science and engineering and aesthetics to the challenge of organizational change.  We are unique in that most other “change artists” are not focused on engineering and some even ignore science.  (see Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on the Surprising Science of Motivation).  Few even know how to spell aesthetics.  Yet, when you are dealing with systems that contain and include people, you have to use aesthetics, and you are ill prepared for success if you ignore science.  Engineering is a mindset as much as a class of methods.  It involves applying the things that science has discovered and using that understanding to build great (and sometimes terrible) things.  Engineers build on ideas and use them, often experimenting on systems that are too complex and intertwined for “pure science” to get arms around.

As Enterprise Architecture is such a young science, we have relied to heavily on the “boxes and lines” model of enterprises, and not enough on the messy but important sociocultural view of an enterprise.  We find it easier to document, and model, and even simulate, processes as though people were interchangeable and their relationships didn’t matter. 

That is just lazy.

It is time to get up off our collective butts and start working out ways to understand sociocultural influences, relationships, and architectures.  We have to build ways to detect, measure, and consider these structures when we measure capabilities, or improve processes, or suggest automations, or evaluate business models, or any of the two dozen things that EA’s do. 

The value of EA often comes to an executive in the form of a reasoned opinion that is based on data that no one else is looking at.  Let’s consider the possibility that examining sociocultural influences can provide interesting opinions that an executive will find valuable.

We should consider sociocultural information if:

  1. Sociocultural influencers can impact the speed of change in an organization.
  2. Sociocultural connections can impact the decision making and governance processes
  3. Sociocultural strengths would allow rapid improvement in business capabilities needed for a shift in strategy
  4. Sociocultural blind spots would prevent an organization from recognizing an existential threat


Think about it.  Do you believe that any of those statements are false?  I can find ample examples for each one.  So if sociocultural interactions matter, why are we not tracking them, learning from them, using them to make decisions?

It’s only hard because we haven’t tried.

(This post inspired by the many similar pleas shared by J.D. Beckingham in social media).

By Nick Malik

Former CIO and present Strategic Architect, Nick Malik is a Seattle based business and technology advisor with over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".

4 thoughts on “When does EA start to care about sociocultural influences?”
  1. Dave Snowden's work with Cognitive Edge, Cynefin and the SenseMaker product speak to this I think.

    Also Hofstede's research published as Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind.

    Having worked with communities in many countries I think the impact of culture is vastly underestimated in organizations and systems.

  2. Nick,

    Reality is messier than the boxes and lines of an architecture. Still, enterprise architecture does its best to understand and describe the enterprise, same as anatomy does for the human body.

    Culture has a major influence on the operation of an enterprise. Still, is that the job of an enterprise architect to act upon?

    The architect is at best the coordinator of many such efforts. The EA architect is not the problem solver though for all troubles of an enterprise, cultural or not, the architect is not the fac totum.

    Besides, EA takes place in IT in most cases where people and their organisation are not even part of the  framework.

  3. Great post and I agree completely with all comments as well. I think Adrian makes a great point about EA being "coordinator at best." My observation is that EAs often can spot these social factors and how they either enhance or inhibit business problems. Assuming that's the case, who else is going to call them out? Who else will challenge mental models that may render otherwise desired strategies not live up to their promise? Sometimes the organization just isn't ready to change.

    Don't get me wrong, it's really hard to do and can be very messy and political. I am struggling with hearing stated need on the one hand, but sociocultural factors getting in the way on the other. And we're in a corporate culture that espouses change and generally is good at it… when the economics are right. Ever try converting sociocultural factors into $$? Let me know when you figure it out.

    The only way I think it can work — which also addresses Adrian's last sentence — is to find the right influencer(s) in the business and have them help you take it forward. This might be a chain of influence, but if the business leader sees a need that coincides with your perception, help them develop the idea and drive it from the top down. Easier to do from 2-3 levels down from the top than from EA's position. That *might* be happening in two instances I'm working on right now… at least it provides some glimmer of light.

    Of course, that's the tip of the iceberg, but it's a start. There were some really good comments in a blog post I saw the other day. #5 is what we're essentially talking about here.…/positioning-enterprise-social.html

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