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  • John Chambers, PhD

Dem Bones

Imagining a network architecture as a diagram is pretty easy.

Imagining a business workflow is no problem.

Architects create blueprints all the time. Workflow experts diagram decisions and handoffs. Whenever we want to conduct a gap analysis we start with current state, not desired state. And what better way to identify the gaps then if we can perceive the environment in an illustrative design – a schematic. Picture’s worth a thousand words, and all that.

And yet we still shy from them.

When we discuss app portfolios, vendor intersections, customer domains and, of course, financial metrics there is the default reliance on spreadsheets, narratives and interminable conversations. Why there isn’t a baseline illustration is beyond me. Well, actually not. It’s hard. Creating a picture is daunting especially when one is hard pressed to see their environment as an orchestrated dance, such as in Legal, where documents and turgid vocabulary is artfully spoken to provide pinpoint clarity as much as wriggle room.

“How am I supposed to create a picture when my accountability is a service catalog?”

“Who can draw a picture of an application instance?”

“What kind of schematic aligns to a vendor spend?”

The short answer to all could be a business process. The longer answer depends on the view you are seeking and the questions you are trying to resolve.

Everything we do, build, enhance is related to market penetration and/or cost savings and/or revenue enhancement. These objectives are achieved, in the firm, by way of engagement processes or streamlined operations, and exploiting competitor oversights. If the competitor vulnerability is perceived immediately, then your mobilization advantage and first mover status become powerful.

There are connections in the core of those questions, ties to opportunities, limitations gaps, resources, dysfunction or strength. So we have a choice:

Shall we write analyses to these questions in narrative form like sophisticated and evolved species?

Or shall we return to Paleolithic times?

Cavemen, rejoice. The answer is the latter.

Every consultant that enters your doors is going to charge you for billable time, legitimate analysis , which requires advanced and scientific study (or it darn ought to be) with the ability to articulate the problem sets, gaps and recommendations in a descriptive and extended form. That we expect, because the thicker the book, the higher they charge. But you must demand a digestible and workable view for future optimization and action.

When we gather for a deliberation with our team, the preso must show a set of diagrams – clear, embraceable, and, like our grunting ancestors, even primitive. In a strange sense, the Neanderthals scratching on stone were onto something. Pictures are our blueprint for understanding and action.

You cannot collaborate with new parties, even with old parties, without your baseline view. I recall constructing a network diagram back in the day and presented it to one of the most cerebral and thorough engineers in the company. As a youngster, I was intimidated by him because he was short on chit-chat and had one hell of an ego. (As I got older I realized the ego was unacceptable in a collaborative environment and although he was the data-comm geek, he was just another member of the team with as many shortcomings as the rest of us.)

Anyway, he was cynically perusing a schematic I developed to troubleshoot an intermittent connectivity issue. “We have a leased line in our eastern office?” he asked, surprised. At that moment he treated me not as the newbie but as someone who discovered something he had not known.

Prior to that, he was focused on some internals that were in the bowels of our software stack – a complex set of spaghetti code that he needed to unravel and rewrite. But with that one moment of discovery, using the illustrative view rather than me mumbling a catalog of linkages, he immediately saw an architectural complement he hadn’t noticed before. One he needed to know, and should have known.

When I think back on that episode part of me wants to say that it was not some significant discovery, and that anybody worth his salt uses diagrammatic expression in their engineering department.

And yet, the older I get and the more companies I engage, I see that we often use a thousand words instead of a picture. It’s self-evident in the world of flow-charting processes or illustrating conventions, but it’s less so in the world of software development, data mining, systems architecture and customer analysis. Not absent, but less employed in executive discussions. And even less so outside of I.T.

We must use our diagrams to show our connections. "Our" means employees, assets, code, company processes and inter-dependency. The diagram is the treasure map. It’s always about connections, as the ankle bone connects to the shin bone and the shin bone connects to the knee bone. Your skeleton of a firm can walk, talk, think, move, build, create, compete, because of its miraculous cohesiveness. The sum of the parts flourishes as the whole, of course! But this whole cannot be assessed nor optimized without a view of those connections -- a diagram, a blueprint.

Imagine your X-ray following an injury as a text based listing of bones and flaws. Notwithstanding a future state whereby our machines will articulate and converse with us, “There’s a hairline fracture in the talus…”, we nonetheless depend on the view, the picture, the thousand words embedded in an illustration. We want to see that hairline fracture!

How does a gap analysis occur without illustrating the process?

How are customer opportunities reconciled without easily digestible geographies or overlays of competitors?

Without our seeing the footprints on the sandy beachhead, guiding our eyes, then we are slowed. As we collaborate with a hundred teammates’ eyes we look at the map, the blueprint, the schematic. We come together by way of the picture. We educate by way of the cave drawing, by the snapshot of our skeleton.

Of course, there isn’t a firm or consultant worth their salt without pictures; thus, the kneejerk reaction is “We already do that. I can show you scores of diagrams in our environment.” Indeed, this is true. But the challenge is whether they are interconnected. Are we able to see, really see, the touch points between departments and worrisome silos? Are we able to see single points of failure in a holistic setting? Can we see the layers, where granular functions and applications glue our company value together?

I don’t care if we are talking about Auditing departments, HR, Marketing, Legal, even Finance with their comfort blankets of spreadsheets. These environments are connected by technology and by human contact in a myriad of threads and lines, trends and patterns.

So demand the illustrative perspective as part of the culture.

See the connections and make sure the body moves as one.

"Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones..."

Is the firm, as walking skeleton, limping?

Then see if the "neck bone connects to the head bone, and hear the word o‘ the Lord!'

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