Is Platform Theory the New Systems Theory?

December 28, 2020 Dan Scarfe

platform theory

One of the biggest challenges we face talking to customers about our platform native story is helping them to understand what an important and fundamental decision it is. Our thesis is that the compatibility across the stack is fundamentally more important than the individual, specific, capabilities of any of the pieces.

A very interesting analogy here is systems theory, a term famously coined by Russell Ackoff in the 1970s. For those of you who want a quick brush-up, stop and watch this video for twelve minutes.

Ackoff exquisitely and humorously sets out what systems theory is why it is so important to continual service improvement. His fundamental thesis is:

“The performance of a system doesn’t depend on how the parts perform taken separately, it depends on how they perform together.”

He gives a brilliantly simple example. A person in search of the very best of the best automobile might assemble 200 cars into a garage. A team of engineers would be dispatched to analyze and inventory each car and select the best components from it. The engine from the Bentley. The drivetrain from the Buick. Those parts would be assembled to create the ultimate automobile. Of course, this would never work. Even assembling the pieces would be fraught with difficulty because they are not designed to work together. Heavy modification would need to be performed. Were it even to start, the performance would be dramatically below the performance of even the worst preassembled car.

He gives another example. Someone looking to build a house would engage an architect to design and plan the house. The rooms of the house would be designed in concert to make sure that they fitted together and produced a structurally sound house. It makes perfect sense. You wouldn’t dream of starting by designing each room, in isolation, and then attempt to bring them together into a single conjoined space. It would be impossible. It’s still of course necessary to look at each room and see how improving its design may improve the overall design of the house, but the two must go in parallel.

So why am I talking about cars and houses? The parallel is uncanny. Systems theory can apply to any system. Including an IT system. The performance of your IT system does not depend on the how the pieces of software perform taken separately, it depends on how they perform together. What we’re talking about here is Platform Theory.

Let’s start with the counter argument to Platform Theory. For many years organizations have looked to analysts to understand what the best of breed piece of software for a given use case is. The best antivirus software. The best mobile device management. The best cloud infrastructure. The best data platform. An entire industry is built upon providing these recommendations. If you’re using the very best component for each piece of the system, you by definition must end up with the very best system.

Did everyone just forget about systems theory?

If we were building a car we wouldn’t attempt to assemble hundreds of components from dozens of different cars. Yet, this is exactly what IT teams are doing every day with endless RFPs and detailed line-by-line comparison on the quality of each component.

If we were building a house, we wouldn’t let our business groups design each of the rooms and then ask central IT to somehow magic these together onto a stable foundation. Yet this is the behavior we witness every day as different teams select different platforms and technologies and are surprised when they don’t work very well together.

A Platform Native thesis is, therefore, a thesis based on Systems Theory. Selecting a platform, Microsoft in our case, and a set of components which are integrated and designed to work together, delivers a far more effective system. Provided the platform delivers performance above the 95th percentile when benchmarked again the respective “best of breed” vendor in that space. Rather than expending time, effort and resource in creating and maintaining the connective tissue and solving for the engineering challenges associated with unifying these disparate pieces of technology, take that same investment and focus it on solving real business challenges.

Ackoff finished by talking about creativity, which reminded me of a post that Kevin Peesker shared:

“Continuous improvement is nowhere near as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. … One never becomes a leader by continuously improving, that’s imitation as a leader. You only become a leader by leapfrogging those who are ahead of you and that comes about through creativity.”

Doing things the way we have always done them, let’s pick the best this and the best that, try and bring them together into some kind of state of the art IT system, does not work without incurring significant and arguably unnecessary cost. Trying to bring our traditional tools and mindsets to the cloud also does not work. Early Cloud pioneers are now experiencing this realization.

The organizations who are experiencing the most rapid acceleration of value right now are those focused on systems theory. Let’s pick a vendor and go deep with that vendor. Let’s build a system, not a collection of parts. Let’s leapfrog our competition and not only survive COVID, but thrive the other side. May we present you with Platform Theory. Our thesis that partnership with your vendor in the Cloud delivers you the best business value creation.

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