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Its not just about technology – its also very much about organisational structure

If you are a long serving computing practitioner who has been through mainframes in data centres to mini computers in departmental computing and then to PC Networks and IT you might just recall hearing about Conway’s Law. Well its coming back again as we move into Clouds! Melvin Conway thesis http://www.melconway.com/research/committees.html that gave birth to the concept that became known as Conway’s Law first surfaced in 1968 as part of the shift into departmental computers. Essentially Conway’s point was that in designing enterprise business models, computer solutions, even products to take to market an organisation will always mimic its own communication structure.

Conway’s Law = …organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

Some good examples of what this might look like, based on the original thesis, can be found on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway%27s_Law but you can get a more up to date view from 2008 work at Harvard Business School http://www.hbs.edu/research/pdf/08-039.pdf and at Microsoft Research http://research.microsoft.com/apps/pubs/default.aspx?id=70535 . To understand the interest and why it comes up at times of technology innovation that leads to business change, let me provide my own experience relating first to what it meant at the time of PCs and Networks, then what it means in the context of Clouds.

Each of our technology era has resulted in a new business model, organisational structure, set of working methods, and perhaps most importantly of all, a new competitive value proposition. Okay that’s not a new point, but at each shift there has been a key dependency on a core piece of technology which at the time seemed impossible to justify within the existing communication and organisational model. Can you imagine working without email? Well in the early 90s many, even most, enterprises couldn’t figure out the business case for email.

At this time the organisational model was both hierarchal and rigidly separated by departments each of which had a departmental computer and set of applications that enabled them to automate and keep track of their own processes and resulting data. Though some office automation products existed such as IBM Personal Services and Digital Equipment Corporation All-in-One, paper and the interoffice memo ruled. Networked PCs and Client Server technology capabilities led to new business models based around Business Process Re-Engineering, BPR, concentrating on optimising the horizontal flow across the departments. On the people organisational side this introduced Matrix working, a person’s ability to perform their unique role in multiple different processes, and that’s when the fun started!

Who was responsible to whom, and for what? If the people still worked in departmental organisational structures and the critical issue lay in a flow process in which their department performed a minor role, how did the issue get communicated? Up the hierarchy within the department until a departmental head spoke to another departmental head? Sounds stupid now, but that’s how it was at first. The whole point about email was it changed the who could communicate with whom and about what into a new communications structure that enabled the flexibility of matrix working within Business Processes rather than departments.

So how do we shift towards a ‘services’ model based on cloud technology with its inherent agility towards frequent change and a focus on optimisation of events by deploying peoples’ expertise if we are still working with the communications capabilities and organisational structure of matrix working? But who pays for this collaborative stuff? It’s the email issue of 1990 all over again! Hence, why Conway’s law is back again, its there to help us all to understand the link to communications and organisational structures when discussing how to change our business models.

Its even helps to explain some things in the last year or two! Try this December 2009 blog post on SAP Sapience http://hgumbel.wordpress.com/2009/12/23/business-by-design-%E2%80%93-conway%E2%80%99s-law-reconfirmed/

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Agreed….it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. Especially with collaboration a lot of it still appears to be rogue…some business units strikiing out on their own. Some CIOs stating this is official collaboratin platform to some success (but other smaller ones sprouting out through the organizatinon). I think one of biggest keys with collaboration software is that it will have to be engrained with how business works…as email did…until then..it is a cool thing on the side.

andy mulholland

To me the issue is that individual groups are picking and using collaboration tools much as they did with email products and in so doing improve one area of the business in terms of its capabilities but lose the overall impact of all using the same standards across the enterprise. Eventually enterprises realized how much they were losing out in the efficiency they sough by this and did bring in a genuine enterprise approach for email, but we are no where near this for collaboration tools!


Good point…I remember a colleague telling me at one government agency they had 4 different email systems so you couldn’t email from one region to another. Until they standardized….