Monday, November 23, 2009

Pattern writing in Sofia

Continuing about patterns... At the beginning of the month I went out to Bulgaria to teach pattern writing to some academics and students at the University of Sofia. It was the first time I’d been to Bulgaria so I was interested to see the country which physically, historically and culturally sited between Europe and Russia.

We made the class very practical, no PowerPoint, in fact apart from a 5 minute video it was computer free. Yes we talked, yes we used flip charts but most of all it was practice, this was about writing after all. Only about an hour in and we had our participants putting pen to paper to write some patterns.

For this we used a video about milk packaging from TetraPak, there is an English version on You Tube, as it happens we used the short German version but it was the pictures not the words which were important. After watching this we did some brainstorming to identify what was happening in the video, i.e. what solutions were being used to solve which problems.

Initially we asked the participants to think about three things: the state before the solution, what the solution was and how things were different after the solution. Once the groups had grasped this we expended these into the traditional parts of a pattern: context, problem forces; solution and implementation; consequences and all the other bits (known uses, etc.)

During the writing myself and my co-presenters (EuroPLoP regulars Klaus Marquardt and Didi Schueltz) circulated between the groups to answer questions, provide advice and deliver a bit of shepherding.

And then we repeated the exercise with different subject material. We did some brainstorming to identify ideas which the participants would like to write patterns about, problems in their own domain. We repeated the writing process and finished the day with a writers workshop.

So in the space of one day we covered all the pattern basics. Although not in as much depth as maybe we could have. We carried on into a second day but only used half of the day. Next time I’ll be sure to use two whole days.

On the second day we covered the ideas behind shepherding, talked some more about pattern form, answered some questions and ran a second writers workshop, this time on an existing pattern by an experienced writer.

More than ever I left feeling that patterns are a generally applicable knowledge management technique. Not everything belongs as a pattern but the form is useful in many domains. And pattern thinking (or perhaps pattern analysis is a better term) is useful even when the thing you are writing (or just analyzing) is not a pattern.

And what did I learn? Well...
  • I really enjoyed teaching pattern writing and hope to do it again
  • Using a video to provide source material worked well
  • Not using slides worked well, it requires confidence but the result was better
  • You still need to give the attendees something to take away so having support material is necessary. Still, I’m always disappointed with slides which are little more than bullet points after the class. We did hand out some of my writing about patterns and patterns form, some patterns about patterns and some links to websites with more information and patterns.
  • Having co-presenters was good. This was an intensive class so it needed more than one person
  • You really need two days to do this properly
  • Having attendees experience what you do was far more valuable than just lecturing them
Next time I would like to include a pattern reading exercise too. Take a well written pattern and read it through as a group. I’m going to be delivering a software patterns course this week and I plan to try this exercise in miniature.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Gartner talks up Pattern Based Strategy

For those who don’t know, Gartner group are a business/technology research outfit who produce reports on things technical and business related. They have a pretty good reputation and they have a couple of sidelines in consulting and event organizing (or is it the other way round?). Sometimes they are leading opinion and sometimes following. They sell their reports, their conferences are expensive and their consulting must be more so.

Anyway, the reason for saying this is that Gartner have decided “Pattern Based Strategy(tm)” is the next big thing: “Companies Must Implement a Pattern-Based Strategy to Increase Their Competitive Advantage.”

(Notice the “(tm)”. Somebody, somewhere owns the trademark “Pattern Based Strategy.” Hillside own the trademark “PLoP” but not “pattern”. Could the owner of this one be...?)

Now as many of my regular readers will know, I’ve been talking about Business Strategy Patterns for over five years - and you can read my Business Strategy Pattern papers for free. Since posting up the 2009 EuroPLoP paper I’ve spent some time on the whole, I know have a 230 page draft of a book and I’m starting to approach publishers. There is still a lot to do but I hope to have something out by the end of 2010.

Getting back to Gartner. I’d love to tell you how their patterns and mine link up but I can’t actually read the Gartner report. Call me penny-pinching if you will but $500 seems pretty tall. Actually, they have a bunch more papers on strategy patterns but again, its $500 a throw.

I asked Gartner for a copy of their research and they said: “Unfortunately, our research is only available to our clients, but I can provide you with the press releases we have done on the topic which you may find helpful.”

So there you go, a closed shop. They aren’t willing for other people to review their work, definately not the culture we in the patterns community have.

It also means I can’t see their sources. I’m naturally suspicious of organization that won’t disclose their sources. For all I know they could be be building on sand - they could even be referencing me left right and center. Never mind me, I’d like to see some third party research to support their ideas.

From the press release (the first link I gave) and some other downloads from the site it doesn’t look like they are talking about Patterns in the same sense that anyone familiar with Christopher Alexander’s work would understand it. And by extension, they are not linking their patterns work up with work from the software engineering community - Design Patterns (GoF, POSA, etc.). Neither are the talking about patterns as knowledge management from the likes of Mary Lynn-Manns and Daniel Mays, or the work on Business Strategy Patterns I and others have been doing.

At the basic level there are similarities about the patterns they see and the underlying ideas of Alexander. For both Gartner and Alexander it is about a reoccurring sequence of events in some setting - Alexander would say place, software folks would say context and Gartner say market.

I think Gartners work is more related to data mining and business intelligence than it is to Alexander. As such it may well have more to do with bird spotting. Some years ago Harvard Business Review ran a piece on how spotting patterns in birds could help with business strategy - see Spotting Patterns on the Fly from HBR November 2002.

Although we are all dealing with the same thing: reoccurring events, sequences, constructions and the forces that bring them about, I consider Gartner’s patterns as “patterns in the small.” Reoccurrence without the repetition, analysis and explanation that make up “pattern in the large”. Its the same word but used differently.

Gartner also discuss “weak signals” and scenario planning. This is interesting because I’ve always believed pattern thinking has a lot in common with scenario planning. It is about detecting the forces at work and seeing how they play out.

Gartner are mixing a number of different themes into their “Pattern Based Strategy(tm)”: IT systems, event monitoring and data mining. They talk about finding “new patterns” but how can you find new patterns if you don’t know the old ones? It would be nice to think Garner have some patterns they might share but I suspect they don’t.

OK, lets give it 10 years and see if anyone remembers Gartner’s “Pattern Based Strategy (tm).” Alexander and Design Patterns will still be around - timeless.

Finally, I would imagine that Gartner are one of those companies with a reputation management system so someone in Gartner will shortly be alerted to this blog. I’d like to hear your comments.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Speaking at Jax London conference

The highly successful Jax conference is coming to London next year - 22 to 24 February. And I’m pleased to say I’m going to be speaking there.

I’ve been asked to present my Future of Agile talk, but, of course, this is going to need updating. The problem with the future, is it keeps arriving, so it keeps changing. The good news is this means the talk will probably always have a future!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Creating change through IT projects

In my last blog (Magic happens here - ERP, CRM, SAP, BPM) I mentioned change programmes in passing but didn’t elaborate. So I will now. This topic isn’t unique to the BPM work I have discussed in the last few blog entries but it is related.

When I think of “Change Programmes” I am thinking of the scenario where an organization decided something must change. Someone - consultants, managers, senior folk - decide what need sot change and how, e.g. introduce a new IT system, change the business processes, etc. - and then set about making it happen.

From time to time I run across articles online, in blogs and in prints journals and books which address the question like:
  • how to you motivate people to change?
  • how do you overcome resistance to change?
  • why do so many change projects fail?
  • why do people resist change?
And so on. The common theme is that a group of people, lets call then Workers, are required to change their behavior in response to some initiative from other people, lets call them Managers - although they often go by the name of Consultants.

This is a problem many IT projects of all shapes and sizes face at times. Its also a problem faced within IT when Managers want to change the way the team works.

I don’t believe people resist change. I think people, for Workers are always People, are happy to embrace change when they see the advantage, when they have choice and when they are involved actively in the change.

For example: many people are only too happy to get a new mobile phone when their supplier tells them they can have a free upgrade.

Change problems only exist when one group of people want to impose change on another group. Its not resistance to change, its it resistance to being changed. Been told what to do differently.

As long as one group of people think they know best and try to impose change on another group people will continue resist change, articles like I mention above will continue to be written and change initiatives will continue to fail.

The solution is to change the way you deal with the problem. Those who want change need to involve those who need to change. If you are a Manager who wants a team to improve their performance then ask team what they could do to improve. Ask the team what they would do differently. Take the teams ideas and help the team turn them into action.

If you are an IT expert charged with delivering a new IT system - to support business change or otherwise - then ask the people who will use the new system what it should do, give them demonstrations as the system developers, ask their opinion, deploy the system early and incorporate the feedback of the Workers.

I’m not saying you ignore long term issues, strategy, corporate objectives and such. Tell your Workers about these things and harness their ideas. Integrate the ideas and goals into a shared understanding.

This advice applies to all change initiatives and all IT change projects. (My “Agile approach to BPM” entry a few weeks ago put this in the context of Agile and BPM.)

Too often companies use IT as a blunt instrument to impose a change in process, behavior and working practices. I sometimes imagine it as a dice game. Faced with imagined resistance to change and complex systems Managers commission an IT projects in the hope that it will create change. They grab the dice - very expensive dice I should say - and roll them in the hope that they will roll a six and win.

Surely we can do better and move beyond luck for success.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Magic happens here - ERP, CRM, SAP, BPM

I want to draw a line under the BPM/SAP mini-series of blogs. I am more aware than ever about the need to learn more in this area and actually I already know more thanks to people’s responses to these blogs - a few comments and a few e-mails. I hope to spend time in future finding out more about this arena and why it presents so many difficulties.

(And I’m hoping to see Jez Higgins talk at ACCU 2010, Wrestling with Giants.)

However, I continue to have this feeling that the SAP folks just don’t explain themselves. It feels like people are constantly telling me: “you don’t understand...”. What I would like is someone to explain please? Dont just tell me I don’t understand. Please, tell me: what is it that is different? What am I missing here?

Until that happens the BPM/SAP world will continue to feel like a secret society of people who “understand it” but will not explain it.. Until then all this is a mystery, SAP will be a box marked “magic happens here.” I’ve looked a some websites on SAP and I’ve looked at some books. The emphasis on results rather than how only deepens the mystery.

So, let me close by posing a hypothesis, maybe some researcher can pick this up and explore it.

I suggest companies buy big application suites one the assumption that:

Cost of Purchase + Cost of Customisation (programming) + Cost of Change Programme

is less than <

the Cost of Developing a Product from scratch

And that:

Cost of ongoing licencing + Cost of ongoing Maintenance

is less than <

Cost of Maintaining a Development Team to maintain a bespoke product

You might also add in a saving in management time, headaches from managing software developers, speed to market and a few other variables but that is the basic equation.

My belief - and I have no evidence for this so it is conjecture (don’t you just love blogging?) - is that companies underestimate the cost of installing and customising these big packages, and simultaneously overestimate the cost of developing their own solution.

That second part is probably the most controversial bit. I suggest that when run well these costs are not excessive and not run away. The current crop of development techniques (yes, the Agile and Lean ones) together with modern tools and existing libraries can help contain these costs.

A couple of cases might demonstrate my point....

As it happens, I do know of a company in London which has taken this route. They have four developer using PHP to continually develop their CRM system and other business functions.

A few years ago a company I worked with introduced SalesForce to help the sales team and started to extend SalesForce to marketing and support. At first it looked like a large part of my project would be thrown away as SalesForce replaced it. After many weeks of talking to the third party integrator it became clear there was something we needed and the system wouldn’t do. We developed the functionality ourselves for a fraction of the cost and time it would have taken to have the third party customise (programme) SalesForce. but then, it was a software company which knew how to do these things.