How do you go about teaching information systems at the University of North Texas?
We have a pretty strong and broad curriculum, the students get several different programming classes, good grounding in network technology and database technology and software. But we also try to bring in the big picture, how it really fits together. Though most of our students take entry-level jobs working on a particular project or part of a system, whether it's infrastructure or software or some combination, we want them to leave with some sense that the things they work on are actually part of a much larger enterprise. That piece they are working on needs to be not just a good piece, but a great piece that creates value for the whole.
That sounds like a sales pitch for enterprise architecture.
Yes, and in my career it came to me backwards, too. My original focus was software development and obviously the importance of getting the requirements right. Well, it turns out that to have the requirements right, you need what you are working on in the context of the whole because otherwise you might build a great system but it doesn't create value. It might be adding redundancy or be the 73rd system to connect 72 other systems. Even if those other 72 systems are part of stovepiped business units and are perfectly aligned with them and serve their needs, as a whole the enterprise is wasting a ton of money and a ton of resources and talent. That experience is what brought me to the enterprise architecture space.
You talk about academics being plagued with a “reductionist” approach to teaching. What does that mean?
It isn't just universities, it's everything we see in health care, in public policy, in our organizations. Philosophically, it's the idea that by understanding the parts we can understand the whole. But if you take that to the extreme, if I understood all your chemical composition, would that mean I know you as a person? The answer is, of course not. I could optimize your chemical composition but would that be optimizing you, the whole person? We tend to think that way everywhere. It's almost an intellectual curse of mankind.
We know IT people get very compartmentalized in their tasks and then have to transition from one thing to the next.
Very much so. We get a very tight focus to the point where the data people know we would like to have third or fourth or even fifth normal form if possible, but that's not the reality of optimizing the whole business. We optimize the data but that doesn't make for a better enterprise because the enterprise has other competing objectives.
In architecture, to know how something works you need to define it, so how do you get that across to students?
We do it in our capstone classes, and personally I think we all should do it more in the beginning. There is a course that all the freshmen and sophomores take, introduction to technology, it's about how IT -- and really the microchip -- has changed the world. It's really a pattern repeating like we saw in the industrial age with the steam engine that changed everything. You need context. We see how it changed government and medicine and law enforcement and education and the military, and we cover things like security issues and legal context to try to keep bringing it together. Looking at your career, the organizations you work in, your community, your country, your world, we come to know we need a more holistic approach to everything. In my graduate and undergraduate capstone classes I bring back graduates as ‘guest stars’ who describe how they put the pieces together and it's neat to see their careers progress.
Do you formally track where all your graduates wind up?
No, I wish we did. I see great examples and great careers unfolding, but we need to understand much better. How do you measure, what's the measure of a good university? Is it how much money it raises? How many papers come out? Or is it how successful the students are? I'd say it's the latter and we don't measure that area at all.
What is the opportunity for future IT generations?
IT sits in a unique position in that we work on things that touch every part of the enterprise. To see how things are connected and how the pieces we work on are really a powerful view that reflects the disintegrated organization form and disintegrating incentives. I don't think it stays an IT activity, it needs to be part of all of planning and strategy. To me, the key ideas of the industrial age weren't divisional labor and standardized parts -- we had those for hundreds of years.
I think it was things like what was once called scientific management, what we call productivity today, doing more with the same. The other thing on every manager’s mind is innovative thinking. Many years ago, the quality movement was called statistical quality control, and it was a wonk thing for math geeks. But it turned out to be something that's on every manager's mind, and today we highly value both quality and productivity. So I think this idea of a counter-reductionist approach, what in IT we call enterprise architecture, will be one of those ideas. It will be called something else that has changed how we think and how we see the world and will help us change how we work together and communicate within organizations to be more integrated, more holistic.