Archive for the ‘Agility’ Category

On stratification

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

by Philip Boxer PhD

Why the interest in stratification?
A colleague, Simon Western, referred me recently to Actor-Network Theory and the work of Bruno Latour in the context of a conversation about the behaviour of health care networks.

  • His point was that the value of this approach was in the way it focused on ‘following the interactions’, including in a network anything that “modifies a state of affairs by making a difference”.[1] Physical objects that constrain or enable interactions are thus just as important in defining a network as are human actors.  His observation was that standardisation, while restrictive if it became overly prescriptive and bureaucratic, could be liberating, “underpinning all successful business networks”.  Just enough standardisation was the key, for without minimal standardised interfaces, nothing happened.  His examples were:
    • Ryan air- the biggest airline in Europe, grown from nothing on the basis of standardisation creating behaviour change from all stakeholders, to grow a huge network of passengers and air travel;
    • McDonalds- standardised processes, fueled by entrepreneur franchise ownership + fantastic supply chain networks
    • Facebook and Twitter – phenomenal growth through simple standardised frames for individuals to fill with their own personalised content
  • I commented that I thought standardisation per se was insufficient in understanding what made networks effective, the issue being to understand their stratification.  Thus standardisation operated within some of the strata of a stratification and then in different ways depending on the nature of the relationship to demand that the network as a whole was mobilising.[2]
  • His response was that my use of strata and layers spoke more of an engineering project, geology or construction site rather than the fluid complexity of networks. Following Latour’s understanding of networks, his point was that “standardisation and structure are actants within networks, but not the architecture of them.”

So here we were with what looked like a disagreement – follow the networks of interactions and the worlds they construct versus how are the worlds of networks built? In what follows, I explore the ways in which there is no disagreement between these positions.

Follow the networks of interactions and the worlds they construct
In relation to what does a network form?  A useful place to start here is the social object.  An example of a social object would be the condition of a patient[3], but the condition encountered as an event – some singular moment in which there is something about the condition that disrupts existing understandings and/or irrupts in a way that insistes on being attended to [4].  A social object represents a particular affective relation to a situation in which some aspect of the situation itself is experienced as complex, question-generating, endlessly unfolding and incomplete.  The social object is to be distinguished from a ‘real’ object, being like a flag around which people may gather allied in relation to the situation that the flag signifies.[5]  Its efficacy in serving as a social object depended on there being a fit between the nature of its incompleteness and the individuals’ own experience of lack – an identification between some aspect of an individuals’ unconscious lack and the imaginary form given to it by the social object.[6] This ‘gathering around’ takes the form of a network of interactions that includes not only people as actants, but tools, technologies, ways-of-thinking and anything else that enables a current state of affairs to be modified by the differences it makes in the interactions. In the case of our patient, it is hopefully a gathering around the cause of addressing his or her condition.

Latour introduced the notion of punctualisation as a way of thinking about how actants are related to as ‘black boxes’[7]:

the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.

The definition of these black boxes ‘punctualise’ the actants between which interactions are taking place, and when there is some breakdown in the interactions, such black boxes are ‘depunctualised’ in the sense of being opened up themselves as a network. It is this relationship of embeddedness of networks as elements of networks that is described as a ‘stratification’.

Latour further distinguished a ‘real’ object “not by virtue of being tiny and fundamental, but by virtue of having an intrinsic reality that is not reducible to its sub-components or exhausted by its functional effects on other things.”[8] This is consistent with a view of all objects and systems as forms of novel emergence, even though it is convenient for many of such objects to be considered ‘objective’ in the sense of their existence being inter-subjectively agreed as independent of the observer .[9]

So now we have networks, each one formed by interacting actants allied by a relation to a social object the relation to which operates as the (final) cause of the network.  Such networks are stratified by the ways in which they are constituted in relation to embedded networks that are ignored so long as the network as a whole performs as expected in relation to its cause.

How are the worlds of networks built?
The ambiguity in this heading is intended.  We are interested both in finding ways of describing the way networks are punctualised into strata, and also interested in how new forms of punctualisation become possible in pursuit of new kinds of effect.  Latour identified a second type of  ‘intentional’ object that “has no interior of its own, but exists purely on the interior of some other object”.[8] The descriptions of interacting actants from which stratified networks are constructed have this intentional nature.[10] Looked at like this, it is possible to see why Simon was concerned.  In terms of the following diagram, by seeking to identify the ways in which structures might shape the ways in which actants interacted with each other, we would also be creating new understanding of the actants within the network itself. [11] How so?

actantsSuch structure structures an actant’s way of understanding his or her interactions with the network. The actant is subject to this structuring, over-determining the way that they attribute ontic status to their constructions.[12] Using this approach, three kinds of depunctualisation can be articulated in the ways in which these structuring structures structure the way actants’ constructions are made. These depunctualisations are particular to the actant’s subjection to the structuring structure that they embody.

These depunctualisations are referred to as asymmetries, producing a stratification of six types of embeddedness.  When this stratification is projected into the actant’s constructions, they articulate the embeddedness of underlying technologies in relation to the social objects of actants embodying demands within their contexts-of-use[13]:

  • The first asymmetry, separating a product/service from the technology embedded in it.
  • The second asymmetry, separating a solution delivered to a customer from the business organisation embedded in its processes of delivery.
  • The third asymmetry, separating the customer’s experience of the solution within their context-of-use from the customer’s demand.

When the delivery of a product/service, solution or experience is by a network that can be identified with a single organisation, its embedded behaviors describe a theory-in-use that may or may not correspond to what members of the organisation say they are doing.[14] When the relationships between these embedded behaviors become fixed by supply-side interests, they are fixed by an accountability hierarchy. [15]  The delivery of a particular customer’s experience is more likely, however, to be identified with a number of organisations operating as a network, describable also as a ‘system of systems’. [16] For such networks to function effectively, there has to be sufficient agility in the relationships between its embedded systems for them to be capable of being aligned dynamically in response to accelerating tempos in the emergence of new forms of demand. [17]

No disagreement?
Why should we not want to think about the ways in which networking is made impossible by the ways in which it is not possible to punctualise? The engineer in me wants to find ways of overcoming such impossibilities. But my colleague is right in pointing out that what always comes first must be the desire motivating the formation of the network.

[1] Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press. p71
[2] Standardisation can be applied both to the way supply is coordinated and also to the way demand is defined in relation to the client/customer’s context-of-use. These two forms of standardisation have to be managed over a governance cycle. The examples of Ryan Air, McDonalds, Twitter and Facebook belong to particualr parts of that cycle in which there is competition on ‘customisation’ and/or ‘cost’.
[3] Accountable know-how in relation to the patient’s particular pathway is about much more than cost. The process of healthcare must be (and must be expected to be) a collaboration around a social object (the patient’s experience) in the full sense of the word. See Learning about Clinical Commissioning from the USA
[4] ‘Event’ is being used here “the problem of irregularity and indetermination, of the unforeseen and the unforseeable, of the eventually subversive and the disruptive.” See Parker, I. and D. Pavon-Cuellar (2014). Lacan, Discourse, Event: New Psychoanalytic Approaches to Textual Indeterminacy. New York, Routledge.
[5] This understanding of a social object is written about more fully in The social object – distinguishing Kleinian, ‘real’ and Lacanian objects. In explaining the basis of these social objects, Karin argued that the ‘real’ object came to serve as a social object to the extent that it supported a being-in-relation, mutuality or reciprocity between individuals on the basis of enabling temporal synchronisation or on the basis of establishing a shared temporal immediacy – individuals able to collaborate around a shared task, or individuals able to be present to each other in some situation (in contrast to the more familiar spatial synchronisation and immediacy of a face-to-face meeting). Furthermore, to the extent that this mutuality was experienced, it was experienced as a ‘We’-ness embedding the individual in a larger context, but derived from the nature of the shared situation rather than from an institutional affiliation.
[6] This understanding of the relation to ‘lack’ is developed further in a conversation on the refusal of (symbolic) castration. It is to be understood not in the sense of something unconsciously known but not yet brought to consciousness (an interpretive unconscious), but as something radically unknowable in relation to the unconscious per se – a real unconscious (in the sense of the Lacanian Real, not in the sense of ‘real’ reality). See Soler, C. (2014[2009]). Lacan – The Unconscious Reinvented. London, Karnac.
[7] Taken from Bruno Latour (1999) Pandora’s hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
[8] Quoted from Harman, G. (2009). Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Anamnesis). Melbourne, This is teh definition of novel emergence.  See later posting distinguishing novel emergence from hierarchy.
[9] This leads to an understanding of embedded strata of novel emergence as an effect of the interest and capabilities of the observer rather than an inherent property of that-which-is-observed. See Ryan, A. (September 2006). “Emergence is coupled to scope, not level.” Complexity – Complex Systems Engineering 13(2): 67-77. See the following series of postings.
[10] The ‘intentional’ nature of these objects may be understood as themselves networks that, in addition to their synchronic characteristics as a network, also have diachronic characteristics to do with the tempo at which they exhibit their behaviours, corresponding to a timespan of discretion. See Timespan of discretion and the double alignment of ‘know-how’.  For more on the significance of tempo, see [17] below.
[11] Category theory is one medium in which the relationships between these actants may be thought about. See A Categorial expression of Demand Asymmetry.
[12] The nature of such ontic assumptions are described in Describing what is going on (wigo)
The Oxford English Dictonary defined ‘ontic’ as follows: “Of or pertaining to knowledge of the existence or structure of being in a given entity.” Thus any ‘realist’ assertion of ontology is mediated by the ontic assumptions being made by the observer-entity making the assertion i.e. an ontology is built by an entity making ontic assumptions. The 4-quadrant model gives us a way of thinking about what kind of ontic assumptions the entity is making. The concept of the strategy ceiling further elaborates on the way these ontic assumptions are held by an entity in the form of stratified relations between the enterprise and demand.
[13] For more on these layers see 3 Asymmetries.
[14] These behaviors relate to each other in the form of a stratification of nested contexts which places the supply-side behaviors of the enterprise in relation to the demand-side contexts with which it interacts. Where such a relationship does not exist, we may say that the strategy ceiling of the enterprise prevents it. See The strategy ceiling.
[15] East-West dominance means having a business agile enough to support the particular relationships of embeddedness needed to sustain a relationship to the distinct forms of demand arising at its edges. Under these conditions, the 6-layer stratification is no longer usefully thought of as a hierarchy, but rather as a particular structuring of the alignment between supply and demand. Note that it is only by including the third asymmetry that the stratification can no longer be thought of as hierarchy. See When is a stratification not a universal hierarchy?
[16] Such networks involve distributed collaboration in a complex system-of-system multi-enterprise context over which there is no single source of control. See Enterprise Architecture for Complex System-of-Systems Contexts.
[17] The tempo at which an enterprise creates new uses for its systems is different from that of its acquisition or systems development processes. For example, the military continues to confront the issue of how fielded systems can support the agility needed by its deployed forces. This problem of diverging tempos applies to a variety of large-scale, software-reliant enterprises-such as those found in healthcare and digital communications. See Building Organizational Agility into Large-Scale Software-Reliant Environments.

Evaluating platform architectures within ecosystems: modeling the supplier’s relation to indirect value

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

by Philip Boxer, PhD

I have completed a PhD by publication at Middlesex University’s School of Engineering and Information Science under the supervision of Professor Martin Loomes.  Here is its abstract:

This thesis establishes a framework for understanding the role of a supplier within the context of a business ecosystem. Suppliers typically define their business in terms of capturing value by meeting the demands of direct customers. However, the framework recognises the importance of understanding how a supplier captures indirect value by meeting the demands of indirect customers. These indirect customers increasingly use a supplier’s products and services over time in combination with those of other suppliers . This type of indirect demand is difficult for the supplier to anticipate because it is asymmetric to their own definition of demand.

Customers pay the costs of aligning products and services to their particular needs by expending time and effort, for example, to link disparate social technologies or to coordinate healthcare services to address their particular condition. The accelerating tempo of variation in individual needs increases the costs of aligning products and services for customers. A supplier’s ability to reduce its indirect customers’ costs of alignment represents an opportunity to capture indirect value.

The hypothesis is that modelling the supplier’s relationship to indirect demands improves the supplier’s ability to identify opportunities for capturing indirect value. The framework supports the construction and analysis of such models. It enables the description of the distinct forms of competitive advantage that satisfy a given variety of indirect demands, and of the agility of business platforms supporting that variety of indirect demands.

Models constructed using this framework are ‘triply-articulated’ in that they articulate the relationships among three sub-models: (i) the technical behaviours generating products and services, (ii) the social entities managing their supply, and (iii) the organisation of value defined by indirect customers’ demands. The framework enables the derivation from such a model of a layered analysis of the risks to which the capture of indirect value exposes the supplier, and provides the basis for an economic valuation of the agility of the supporting platform architectures.

The interdisciplinary research underlying the thesis is based on the use of tools and methods developed by the author in support of his consulting practice within large and complex organisations. The hypothesis is tested by an implementation of the modeling approach applied to suppliers within their ecosystems in three cases: (a) UK Unmanned Airborne Systems, (b) NATO Airborne Warning and Control Systems, both within their respective theatres of operation, and (c) Orthotics Services within the UK’s National Health Service. These cases use this implementation of the modeling approach to analyse the value of platforms, their architectural design choices, and the risks suppliers face in their use.

The thesis has implications for the forms of leadership involved in managing such platform-based strategies, and for the economic impact such strategies can have on their larger ecosystem. It informs the design of suppliers’ platforms as system-of-system infrastructures supporting collaborations within larger ecosystems. And the ‘triple-articulation’ of the modelling approach makes new demands on the mathematics of systems modeling.

The following summarises the argument in terms of Value for Defence:

Value for Defence

View more presentations from Philip Boxer

Building Organizational Agility into Large-Scale Software-Reliant Environments

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

by Philip Boxer

This paper was presented at the 3rd Annual IEEE Systems Conference in Vancouver March 23-26 with the following abstract:

The tempo at which an enterprise creates new uses for its systems is different from that of its acquisition or systems development processes. The military continues to confront the issue of how fielded systems can support the agility needed by its deployed forces. This problem of diverging tempos applies to a variety of large-scale, software-reliant enterprises-such as those found in healthcare and digital communications. This paper posits four realities underpinning an approach to this problem space: the governance-demand double challenge, edge-driven perspective, stratification, and demand cohesion. It uses a particular case example to show how these concepts support the modeling and analysis of the enterprise as a socio-technical system of systems. The paper argues that analyses based on this approach are necessary for making this problem space tractable.

Agility and Value for Defence

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

by Philip Boxer

In February 2009, a joint article was published with Nicholas Whittall in the RUSI Journal:

The article argues that costing flexibility of design and valuing agility offer the grounds for new commercial transactions and an approach to the elusive notion of Value-for-Defence.

Type III Agility in Organisations

Friday, January 6th, 2006

by Philip Boxer

The best metaphor for type III agility comes from understanding the way air superiority fighters work. Early aircraft were designed to be stable in flight: the aircraft designer knew how they would fly before they took off. But air superiority fighters are designed to be unstable.

To understand how this works, we need to introduce the idea of variable geometry, for example by having a variable-sweep wing. By putting a computer between the pilot and all of the control surfaces available to the aircraft, the computer can work out what is the best way of keeping the aircraft in the air and responding to the pilot’s requests. The computer has to be able to do this within the physics of how the variable geometry makes it possible for the aircraft to fly. When it can control thrust as well, the computer gives the aircraft supermaneuverability. Thus we can say that what makes these aircraft different is the fact that they have to work out how they will fly as they go.


So if we now return to the concept of agile organisation, we must first describe organisation in terms of how it imposes particular geometries on the relationships between the individual capabilities of the organisation – geometries-of-use. Thus for example, the business process re-engineering of value chains is used to create competitively optimal geometries in the way an enterprise creates value.

If we look at military organisations, we see them developing such concepts as network enabled capability (NEC), and network-centric operations (NCO). We see these innovation happening elsewhere too – for example in telecommunications in response to the needs of corporate clients, or in healthcare where treatments have to adapt continuously to a patient’s emerging needs through the life of their condition. The aim of these innovations is to make the geometries of their organisations variable – variable geometry organisation. This is what creates Type III Agility, needed to meet the challenge of the 21st Century.

What is at stake is the ability of organisations to organise themselves around the needs of their customers, instead of requiring their customers to organise themselves around what the organisation is able to provide. Of course this raises the question of who is the ‘pilot’, which for agile organisations is the question of how to take power to the edge.

Type III Agility

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

by Philip Boxer

In the previous blog on the three agilities, a list of benefits identified by a Gartner report on agility (“The Age of Agility”, 2002) was organised into three groups corresponding to three types of agility. Why? And what does this tell us about what is required to deliver type III agility?

Two underlying issues are being addressed here: firstly, whether or not there is more than one autonomous supplier involved with the user; and secondly whether or not the demand from the user has been anticipated by the supplier. This gives us the following 4 quadrants:


Thus the two approaches to satisfying anticipated user demands are ‘directed’, either by the single supplier, or by several suppliers who choose to come together under a single contractual arrangement. The ‘Type I+’ position is anomalous here, since if there is only one supplying organisation and it encounters an unanticipated demand that it can satisfy from its existing capabilities in time, then it will do so on a contingency/ad hoc basis using directed composition. If it cannot, then if it is to respond to the demand, it will have to collaborate with others in order to bring in the missing capabilities. This will face it with the challenges of the Type III quadrant, where a collaboration of suppliers who do have the requisite capabilities must agree how to organise themselves to meet an unanticipated demand in a way that is specific to the demand.
So what is required to deliver Type III agility? Mark Maier, in his paper on Architecting Principles for Systems of Systems, distinguishes between directed and collaborative systems of systems (SoS). In the diagram above, his directed SoS correspond to Types I and II, while his collaborative SoS correspond to Type III, virtual SoS being large-scale versions of collaborative SoS. (Maier’s examples are the world-wide web for collaborative SoS and national economies for virtual SoS, but see separating the supply-side from the demand-side).

Thus collaborative SoS involve separating a supply-side infrastructure (Maier’s examples of these are the internet itself or industry structures) from demand-side organisations that are free to organise supply-side services in whatever way they choose, hence distributed collaborations.  This is the separation that presents the supply-side infrastructure with asymmetric demand. Type III agility is therefore characterised by the need for distributed collaborative composition described by Richard in asymmetric design – collaborative relationships between suppliers, a joint appreciation of what is driving demand, and a capability for collaborative composition. What distinguishes distributed collaboration is therefore that the identity of the collaboration is emergent in response to the demand itself. This involves taking power to the edge.

The Three Agilities

Sunday, January 1st, 2006

by Philip Boxer
We refer to three forms of agility.

Agility Type I – within an existing organization

  • Stretch resources across the organization more effectively
  • Extend access to the workplace to mobile and remote workers

Agility Type II – in relation to existing (anticipated) forms of demand

  • Reach customers more effectively
  • Act intelligently by capturing and driving key information and knowledge through the organization and value chain
  • Co-ordinate relationships and processes between multiple players across the value chain
  • Leverage existing investments in infrastructure

Agility Type III – in relation to new (unanticipated) forms of demand

  • Balance and harmonize competing priorities, multiple strategies and technologies
  • Sense and respond to competitive and market forces, to grasp new opportunities and withstand change

Consider the benefits that these levels of agility bring to the client:

  • Level I benefits: High quality capabilities received from the supplier, resulting from improvement and rationalization of supply chains.
  • Level II benefits: Effective joint response from appropriate parts of the supply chain from when the initial requirement arises, through using smart acquisition processes to secure better through-life teaming between the client and suppliers.
  • Level III benefits: Greater agility in the effective and timely synchronization of performance within the customer’s context-of-use, through the development of demand-side systems of systems independently from their supply-side support infrastructures, based on a high degree of demand-side cross-project cooperation from suppliers that compete at lower supply-side levels.

Looked at in terms of competitive advantage, Agility I and II can contribute to greatly improved operational efficiencies and effectiveness in relation to defined forms of demand. But it is Type III agility that is needed to cope with turbulent or dynamic markets in which the supplier faces significant variety in the forms of demand it is encountering.

Service Oriented Architectures are designed to improve the ability to deliver Type II agility. But what is required to deliver Type III agility?

Source for dimensions of agility: “The age of Agility”, Gartner, July 2002