Saturday, March 11, 2006

Business patterns the state of play

For a few years now I’ve been interested in the application of Patterns and Pattern-thinking to the area of business and business strategy. Just to be clear, when I talk of Patterns I’m specifically thinking of the type of Patterns that originated with Christopher Alexander’s work on architecture - see PatternLanguage.com.

Alexander explained his theories in The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language.

During the early 1990’s his work was picked up by a bunch of people in the software engineering community and this led to many books - the most famous being Design patterns - plus an dedicated software patterns organization (Hillside and Hillside Europe) and a series of conferences known as PLoP’s.

When I was studying for my MBA I regularly found myself saying “This could be better explained as a pattern.” Subsequently I did some searching and yes some people had done some work in this field already but often the patterns were kind of “We have this problem that IT people describe as a ‘business issue’ so lets write it as a pattern.” This kind of thinking leads you to stuff like IBM’s patterns for e-business.

Then there are Patterns written about the IT environment that can be applied more generally to business and organizations. Jim Coplien and Neil Harrison’s Organizational Patterns of Agile Software Development is one such book. Its a really good book, I might not agree with every pattern in it but I would recommend it to anyone trying to organize a software development group or indeed, anyone concerned with organizational structure.

But I was actually thinking was: forget the IT, apply pattern thinking to business in general.

This has lead me to produce a number of papers that I have taken to pattern conferences to validate my ideas - you can find them on my website. One of the fundamental tenants of pattern writing is that you should write from experience. Patterns are about what you know not what you can learn or discover. This places a limit on my pattern writing because my experience is in IT so I’ve had to do a little pattern mining.

Still, I’m not alone with business patterns. Linda Rising, Daniel May and others produced Patterns for Building a Beautiful Company. Others have worked in specific business domains, for example, Cecilia Haskins has produce a set of patterns for conference production.

Sometimes people don’t get it, or they ignore Pattern thinking and just look for “simple” patterns. That’s why I don’t consider Adrian Slywotzky book Profit Patterns to have anything to do with Patterns. (A fuller discussion of this book is on my website.)

From time to time I find others who have had the same thoughts as me, namely, Business Strategy is crying out for Patterns. Richard Veryard has had some thoughts online for a while - although I don’t think he has updated this recently.

Just recently I discovered Julian Elve's blog on the same subject.

I don’t know if Business Patterns will ever break through to the mainstream - the mainstream in Patterns or the mainstream in Business and Strategy. But I do think they have a role to play, I also think a growing number of people are realising this and attempting to do something.

I’d like to think that one day the business community will have our own version of Design Patterns but I don’t see it happening for a while. When it does happen I expect to see business consultants at the fore. These are the natural people to be writing such patterns, they see lots of companies and have great opportunities to spot and analyse patterns at work.