Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Enterprise integration as a cultural collaboration problem

Sean McGrath posted an interesting article on ITWorld: ITworld.com - Mediators and mediatees - Enterprise integration as an industrial relations problem. The basic premise is that IT systems embody a certain view of the world, and that where these differ - e.g. the world-view of the accountancy department is fundamentally different from the goods-in department - you have conflict. Apps don't interoperate because they're seeing the world differently, and hence (Sean proposes) enterprise application integration, or EAI, is essentially an industrial relations problem. It's a nice thought, and I'm not going to get all analytical about what is essentially a thinking-aloud exercise, but I don't agree.

The basic problem, is that different doesn't necessarily equal in conflict. I know that it sometimes can, and hence enlightened companies (including HP) are very keen on promoting a diversity agenda, seeing differences between people as something to celebrate and learn from. But Sean's industrial relations metaphor seems to me to assume that the putative accounting and goods-in apps are in conflict and in need of mediation, just because they see the world in a different light. I'm no student of industrial relations, but it seems to me that such problems generally arise when the goals of two groups, workers and management typically, are in conflict over some limited resource (such as productivity, or access to the corporate jacuzzi). I don't see how this applies to EAI.

I propose a different metaphor: EAI as a problem of building collaborations between two cultures. This weekend just past, my family and I attended my wife's cousin Adrian's wedding to his Chinese bride Chunli. It was a lovely ceremony, not least because of the way that Chinese and British influences were combined to make something that was different from a traditional wedding in either culture (assuming there is such a thing).

What does cultural collaboration require? Like Sean, I'm only thinking aloud here. It requires a some common ground, and a shared purpose. It requires each participant to bring some unique values, and to make space for the uniqueness of the other. True collaboration demands a delicate balance of yielding and non-yielding of control. And, I suspect, to really bring such a thing off requires a touch of artistry. It is often paying attention to the little details that make success inevitable.

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