March 14, 2008

Conflict Theory and Enterprise Architecture

“Conflict theory states that the society or organization functions so that each individual participant and its groups struggle to maximize their benefits… The essence of conflict theory is best epitomized by the classic 'pyramid structure' in which an elite dictates terms to the larger masses. All major institutions, laws, and traditions in the society are created to support those who have traditionally been in power, or the groups that are perceived to be superior in the society according to this theory. This can also be expanded to include any society's 'morality' and by extension their definition of deviance. Anything that challenges the control of the elite will likely be considered 'deviant' or 'morally reprehensible.” (Wikipedia)

In the organization that we work in, today—modern times—is everything copascetic or is there inherent conflict, and how does this affect EA? And how is this impacted by EA?

We all hear and read the message from the top—from the executive(s) in charge—messages of unity of command, unity of purpose, and unity of structure. “We’re all in this together!”

However, the reality is that there are power struggles up and down, sideways, and on the diagonals, of the organization—this is conflict theory! Those at the top, wish to stay there. Those at the lower rungs, wish to climb up and check out the view. The organization is a pyramid, with fewer and fewer senior level positions as you go higher and higher up. Everyone in the organization is evaluated by measures of performance and is competing for resources, power, influence, and advancement.

I remember learning at Jewish day school, that people are half animal and half angel. Sort of like the age old conflict of good and evil. Freud, for the individual, put it in terms of the id and superego.

On one hand, conflict theory pits egocentric and selfish behavior against the greater needs of the organization (and the goals of EA) to share, collaborate, integrate, and go forward as the army slogan states, “an army of one!” The individual or group in the enterprise wants to know the proverbial, “what’s in it for me?”

On the other hand, User-centric EA is about collaboration: collaboration between business and IT, collaboration within the business, collaboration within IT, and even collaboration outside the agency (such as through alignment to the department, the federal EA, and so on). The collaboration takes the form of information sharing, structured governance, an agreed on target and plan, and the building of interoperability, standards, efficiencies, enterprise solutions, and overall integration!

It is not easy for EA to be a counterbalance for conflict theory. The organization needs to provide incentives for positive behavior (and disincentives for negative behavior), so that everyone is encouraged to team, collaborate, share, and look at the bigger picture for the success of overall enterprise!

I’ve seen organizations take steps toward building unity through team awards, criteria in everyone’s performance evaluation for teamwork, and actual mandates to share information. These are positive steps, but more needs to be done to make the enterprise flatter, more collaborative, and remind all employees that they work for the end-user.

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