Monday, June 15, 2009

Entropy and my iced-tea

I drink tea. I don't especially like tea, but it has the value of not containing many of the chemicals that my body either enjoys too much (sugar) or rejects too much (artificial sweetener). Oh to be young again and partake of sustenance solely on the basis of taste! Pepsi by the drum. Nachos! I've arrived at that place where each meal is a cost / benefit analysis to balance any short term pleasure with the down stream after effects.

In the cooler months I drink hot-tea. Not Earl Grey, not cinnamon, not green tea, just plain old hot-tea. Lipton - comes in a yellow box. In the hotter seasons, I convince myself that Iced-Tea is just as refreshing as that other cold liquid that my brain is not allowed to consider. What is interesting is that it takes a certain amount of effort to keep my hot-tea hot, and my iced-tea cold.

Entropy, it is said, is the attribute of nature that causes all systems to move toward chaos. It's not true, but that is a common belief. No, entropy is the natural process that causes a system to move toward a state of equilibrium - that is different from chaos. For instance, if we put 100 pennies in a shoe box, and then shake the box up and down, some number of pennies will flip over. Let's assume you started out with all of the pennies lying heads up. After shaking the box up and down for five minutes, you wouldn't be surprised if half of the pennies were tails.

That's entropy. From a 'nature' perspective neither heads nor tails is better. Having 50 of your 100 pennies facing in an opposite direction to the other, is neither good nor bad, it is no more chaotic than 100 heads or 100 tails. Entropy is not about disorder, it is about equilibrium. It's why my hot-tea becomes luke warm and my iced-tea becomes... luke warm.

Consider a large corporation segmented into several lines of business, hypothetically. Imagine that each business is aggressively pursuing their market space and in some cases employs information technology as a differentiator. Several entropy effects can be observed. First, unless acted upon by some additional force each line of business will adopt technologies to solve their challenges and furthermore, it is unlikely (unless acted upon by some other force) that they will coordinate their technology implementations. This hypothetical scenario might lead to four lines of business buying four separate Business Process Management Suites. Hypothetically.

There is another, less obvious, symptom of entropy; again it's not about disorder, it's about equilibrium. In the corporate world of IT, equilibrium can be observed when the complexity of the existing systems exceeds the entities ability to adopt new solutions. When the effort required to "keep the lights on" get too high there are no more resources left to add business-driving functionality, install new solutions, or even reduce the complexity of the existing solutions. Like my luke warm iced- or hot-tea, the entropy in these corporations has yielded an unrewarding equilibrium.

Being that this is a blog dedicated to Enterprise Architecture, the more astute reader may surmise that I have a point. According to Gartner, corporations with mature Enterprise Architecture programs spend 20% less on keeping the lights on and 28% more on transformational projects.

Effective EA programs look across the vertical siloes of a corporation to identify the unnecessary complexity that naturally results from the effects of business-driven IT entropy, and drives reoccurring solutions out of the line of business siloes to where common technology assets can be scaled, leveraged, and managed. This has the added benefit of reducing the workload on line of business development teams so that they have less to support, and can become more responsive, nimble, and cost effective. Think of Enterprise Architecture as always have hot hot-tea, and really cold iced-tea.

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