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Emergent design and wicked problems

Top down approaches are liable to fail because enterprise IT displays many of the characteristics of wicked problems. In particular, organization-wide IT initiatives:

Are one-shot operations – for example, an ERP system is simply too expensive to implement over and over again.
Have no stopping rule – enterprise IT systems are never completely done; there are always things to be fixed and additional features to be implemented.
Are highly contentious – whether or not an initiative is good, or even necessary, depends on who you ask.
Could be done in other, possibly “better”, ways – and the problem is that one person’s “better” is another one’s “worse”!
Are essentially unique – and don’t let vendors or Big $$$ consultants tell you otherwise!
These characteristics make enterprise IT a socially complex problem – that is, different stakeholder groups have different perceptions of the problem that the initiative is intended to address. The most important implication of social complexity is that it cannot be tackled using rational methods of planning, design and implementation that are taught in schools, propagated in books, or evangelized by standards authorities and assorted snake oil salespersons.

Emergent design is…well, emergent, so a detailed definition is neither necessary nor useful – providing one can describe a set of guidelines for its practice. My main aim in this post is to do just that. To keep things concrete I will discuss the guidelines in the context of the often bizarre world of enterprise IT, a domain that epitomizes top-down, plan-based design.

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