When planning for a new system and its governance requirements, consider whether the system is transactional and in need of specifics versus collaborative and in need of guidance. Architect one and landscape the other.

It’s easy to forget that IT is still a very young industry and one that has grown up by adopting terminology from others, not always successfully.

In the past 10 years, we have seen the rise of the ‘architect’ in IT – enterprise architect, solution architect, platform architect, software architect, systems architect, technology architect and let’s not forget information architecture (stuff to do with tagging things…)

Treating the creation of a software application like the construction and maintenance of a building has its merits for transactional systems that have to deliver a specific and consistent outcome. Planning is essential as is a rigid and routine maintenance schedule, be it testing the fire alarms or testing data recovery. You can’t construct half a building and leave the roof and stairs until later.  And it’s damn difficult to add on a couple of floors a year after construction finished.The same is true for transactional software. To rewrite or extend a financial transaction will require as much design and testing as creating the original one.

But the analogy begins to fail when applied the less structured and messy world of knowledge systems such as intranets and social software. A far better way is to treat them like gardens. They can adapt and evolve as they grow, and also as their usage changes.

When landscaping a garden, you can do as much or as little as you want up front. Limited budget? Basic lawn, path, and some seeds will get you started. The rest can come later.  Got the budget and the vision? Include the water feature, scupltures, the gazebo, the pre-grown plants from the nursery, tropical add-on in a greenhouse. You can decide how much or how little you start with. But one aspect is always consistent – start with a budget in mind first. Announcing that ‘we want a garden!’ with no idea of what it may look like or how much you want to spend is a bad idea. And a myth – people aways have a rough idea of what they want to spend. It’s getting what people want aligned with what they can afford that is always the challenge. Sound familiar?

Maintenance is still required but a rigid routine will not suit. You cannot specify it will need X amount of water distributed on Y number of days per month. If the weather is damp, the grass will grow more quickly and need cutting more frequently. If it is too sunny, the plants will wilt if you don’t take extra care of them. Discovered the place is a bit windier than expected? Plant more hedges to protect the flowers. The amount of care invested needs to be able adapt to external factors or, regardless of what you started with, the garden will become unmanageable or die and nobody will want to visit it anymore.  Sound familiar?

Social software systems like intranets, enterprise social networks and collaborative workspaces are like gardens. You can decide how much or how little goes in at the start and keep evolving the design as usage grows and changes. They will need ongoing attention to maintain momentum in their use. But how much effort is required will depend on the culture of the organisation and its current situation – going through a reorganisation? Increase your communications budget and provide regular updates about changes. Consider creating a forum to allow people to vent. Include moderators so that peoples’ concerns don’t go unanswered or unacknowledged.

This is also why it is a lot easier to calculate the return on investment (RoI) for a transactional system than for a social one.  One is intended to be predictable by design – you are expecting a minimum level of performance. The latter is unpredictable by its nature, you can only estimate the potential value or impact it may have on your business.  If you are concerned, control the initial budget. That’s a lot easier with a gardening mindset than wanting to be the master architect.

When planning for a new system and its governance requirements, consider whether the system is transactional and in need of specifics versus social and in need of guidance. Architect one and landscape the other.

Featured image: iStockPhoto

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