The Nature and Nurture of Flexibilityveryard projects > systems engineering > flexibility
|we offer||the essence of flexibility||material||links|
independent advice on tools and methods
|It sometimes seems that flexibility is an illusion, for
which people are asked to pay large amounts of money. Is this irrational,
Seriously, it is obvious from numerous examples that we have to define what classes of change we are to provide flexibility for. However, any such definition is a restriction. There is a sense in which ‘true’ flexibility is always beyond any specific definition we may formulate.
However, some formulation of flexibility is necessary, if we are to develop any quantitative or even qualitative assessment of its value, to one or more stakeholders. The willingness of such stakeholders to incur costs in return for some level of flexibility must be understood in terms of a model of finite rationality.
On this page, we discuss the nature of flexibility, and its specification. We often need to formulate business cases and system requirements in terms of enhanced flexibility. We therefore need to understand what flexibility is, and how an enhancement in flexibility might be anticipated and measured.
|A man dwelt in a very comfortable house, with a large,
light, airy cellar. The river ran near by. One day the river overflowed,
the cellar was flooded, and all the hens that he kept in it were drowned.
The next day he bounced off to see the landlord. 'I have come,' he said,'to
give you notice. I wish to leave the house.' 'How is that?' asked the astonished
landlord. 'I thought you liked it so much. It is a very comfortable, well-built
house, and cheap. 'Oh, yes,' the tenant replied, 'but the river has overflowed
into my cellar, and all my hens are drowned.' 'Oh, don't let that make
you give up the house, the landlord reasoned; 'try ducks!'
Frank Boreham, Mushrooms on the Moor, London: The Epworth Press, 1930, p. 52-53
Principles of Flexibilityveryard projects > systems engineering > flexibility > principles
|Situations / opportunities possess certain properties that demand flexibility in the solution.||uncertainty / risk
variety / tension
|Solutions are flexible to the extent that they possess certain properties that respond to the needs of the situation / opportunity.||requisite variety
|Flexibility is a property of a system, preserving some recognizable qualities in response to change. Change implies not-change.|
|Flexibility depends on how the system is viewed.||level of abstraction
Challenges of Flexibilityveryard projects > systems engineering > flexibility > challenges
|The challenge for engineers is to match the flexibility implicit in the demand with the flexibility encapsulated in the solution.||scenario planning
|The challenge for managers is to reason intelligently about flexibility and change.||business case|
Flexibility FAQveryard projects > systems engineering > flexibility > FAQ
|What is flexibility?|
|How much does flexibility cost?|
|How much is flexibility worth?|
|How can we measure flexibility?|
|How should we design for flexibility?|
Requirement for flexibility
Flexibility is a desired characteristic of many designs. Let us consider a range of examples.
Also we are never quite sure whether we are interested in the survival of the individual, the species, the gene or the ecosystem. Kenwyn Smith argues that this type of confusion is a significant cause of muddled thinking in organizational change as well as biological evolution.
[K.K. Smith, 'Philosophical Problems in Thinking about Organizational Change' in Paul S. Goodman & Associates (eds), Change in Organizations (San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass, 1984) pp 316-374]
(ii) in the economic environment - interest rates, unemployment, energy costs, and so on
(iii) in the social environment - relationships with community, patterns of employment, consumption, and so on
(iv) in the technological environment - product, process and production technologies available to enterprise itself, customers, suppliers, competitors
(v) in the political / regulatory environment - relations with legislators and administrators (local, national, international), competition / trade policies, case law, and so on
Flex (E) = Si Flex (E, Di), where E is an enterprise and Di is a class of change
or should we be thinking of a multidimensional vector addition?
(ii) in the requirements of potential future occupants - how attractive is this building likely to be for new occupants?
(iii) in its operational efficiency - how well is it insulated, how much does it cost to heat/light/ventilate, and how much would it cost to upgrade these characteristics
(iii) in the institutional requirements - what rules may be applied by local authorities, health & safety inspectors, building societies, and what might it cost to conform to these rules?
(ii) in the employment circumstances of the individual (identity of employer(s), full-time permanent employment versus contract)
(iii) in the economic environment - capital/interest structures of investment
(iv) in the fiscal/legal environment - changes in tax structures or other regulations
(ii) in the business processes (including technology)
(iii) in the individual employees occupying each role (skill development, career progression, job rotation, staff turnover)
(ii) technical platform - this is known as portability
What is flexibility?
Furthermore, flexibility is defined in terms of change, and change is itself a property of descriptions rather than of any underlying reality. Does this mean that flexibility is subjective? What does this question mean?
In the evaluation of enterprises, we are provided with a conventional template model of value called the Balance Sheet. (Although this conventional model is itself subject to both interpretation and evolution, we may take it a priori to be a reasonably stable template.) This defines the scope of the enterprise (at least from the accountants’ point of view), and an objective method for evaluating a given class of changes to the enterprise.
Flexibility is the ability to make small changes in order to avoid large (catastrophic) changes. For example, when riding a bicycle, you need to be able to make small adjustments to the front wheel to retain your balance. If the front wheel is fixed, you will fall off.
The latest wisdom of management gurus (such as Tom Peters) is that the only characteristic you can rely on is change itself. This sounds wiser than it actually is. The trouble is that as soon as you focus on certain classes of change, you neglect other change possibilities. Prepare yourself for turbulence of a particular kind, and you will be caught unawares by turbulence of a different logical type.
One of the ways of operating flexibly in a turbulent world is through flexible outsourcing and joint venture relationships with other companies. Many companies have been badly burned by such strategies, from IBM downwards. Recent studies suggest that companies are refusing to take advantage of interfirm coordination opportunities, for fear of losing bargaining power.
Eric K. Clemons & Michael C. Row, 'Limits to Interfirm Coordination through Information Technology: Results of a Field Study in Consumer Packaged Goods Distribution' Journal of Management Information Systems 10(1) Summer 1993, pp 141-163
Similar considerations apply to commercial enterprises. Each more sophisticated marketing strategy may increase the interdependence between the enterprise and its particular customer base, making it more difficult for the enterprise to develop in new markets. For example, as a company develops ever more flexible and powerful techniques of direct mail marketing, it becomes ever more incapable of using any other marketing channel.
Flexibility is achieved not by keeping your options
open, but by making decisions. Keeping your options open is a form of neurosis,
and leads to paralysis (Wiederholungszwang). Bateson calls this a narrowly
homeostatic system, rigidly indecisive, and identifies it as a characteristic
of schizophrenic families.
And yet making the wrong decision may also reduce flexibility. Remember IBM, who thought that outsourcing the writing of an operating system for the PC would increase its flexibility.
Cost of flexibility
In a stable and predictable environment, habit is worth more than flexibility. Habit is a way of reducing operational costs, by eliminating the need to consider certain factors. If you always use the same route to work, this saves you having to waste mental energy each morning deciding which route to use. If you have a standard procedure (habit) for handling customer complaints, then you can ensure each customer complaint is handled effectively and efficiently, provided that every customer complaint satisfies the assumptions built into the procedure. The SEI capability maturity model refers to this characteristic as process repeatability.
In a hostile world, habit makes people more vulnerable to surprise attack. Kidnappers and burglars often rely on the predictable habits of their victims. And in a competitive marketplace, an aggressive player may rely on the predictable behaviour of its competitors to poach their customers.
Organisms and organizations need habit. But which habits?
Flexibility may benefit the managers (or shareholders) of an enterprise, but may place additional (and unwelcome) pressures on staff
Reg Sell, 'Quality of Working Life and Organizational Effectiveness' in M.C. Jackson, P. Keys & S.A. Cropper (eds) Operational Research and the Social Sciences (New York: Plenum Press, 1989) pp 667-671
Flexibility will often add to the difficulty of the design and the costs of construction, as well as to the costs of operation. Infinite flexibility is likely to be technically as well as economically infeasible.
We define flexibility as the ability to maintain a given state of affairs in the teeth of (a class of) environmental change. We define responsibility as an answerability (of an agent to another agent) for a given state of affairs. Therefore there is a close conceptual relationship between flexibility and responsibility.
Relationship between flexibility and responsibility
In the management literature, there have been attempts to design flexible organizations. Ackoff, for example, claims to have a method of designing an organization that can adapt without reorganizing. He posits three dimensions of the division of labour: functional, product and market, and asserts that most of the cost and disruption of reorganization is caused by changing the order of these three dimensions. He then argues that a multi-dimensional structure (incorporating the same three dimensions at all levels of the organization) will never need major reorganization.
R.L. Ackoff, 'On Flexibility and Freedom' in M.C. Jackson, P. Keys & S.A. Cropper (eds) Operational Research and the Social Sciences (New York: Plenum Press, 1989) pp 19-34
His argument is fallacious. Firstly, each of the dimensions may change: BPR may alter the arrangement of functions; a new marketing vision may radically alter the product groupings; socio-political events may reshape the markets. Secondly, he fails to recognize the extent to which reorganization is the result of self-serving action by politically astute individual managers. Thirdly, his structure is so complicated that when it does change, the cost and disruption will probably be all the greater.
If something becomes a commodity, its use is (perhaps)
more flexible. According to Borgmann, technology is a bridge between means
(device) and ends (benefit). As the technology becomes more sophisticated,
there is an increasing separation between the device providing a benefit
and the benefit itself. This makes the user independent of the device,
makes the device partially or wholly invisible (transparent) to the user.
ODP is an abstract technology in this sense.
How do you get portability, distributability,
and so on? By buying into a more abstract technology. See the following
table. Flexibility at one level always drives you to a form of dependence
at the next level.
|Level of independence||
|Hardware model independence||Select a hardware supplier with an adequate range of consistent models|
|Hardware supplier independence||Select a software platform supported by a range of hardware suppliers (e.g. UNIX, MSDOS)|
|Database independence||Select a database interface standard
(such as SQL), supported by a range of DBMSs.
Select a CASE tool capable of regenerating applications on a range of database management systems
|Development tool independence||Select a CASE platform supported by a range of CASE tool vendors|
|Device independence||Select a device interoperability standard (such as ODP), supported by a range of device vendors.|
In the technical literature, change management is often formalized by specifying a class of changes that are to be considered, so that it becomes a formal mathematical puzzle. This work is obviously useful at the technical level, but raises questions about the extent to which these formal models represent the actual requirements for change and flexibility in the real world.
See for example Jeff Kramer, Jeff Magee & Morris Sloman, 'Managing evolution in distributed systems' Software Engineering Journal November 1989, pp 321-329. Jeff Kramer & Jeff Magee, 'The Evolving Philosophers Problem: Dynamic Change Management' IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering Vol 16 No 11, November 1990, pp 1293-1306Formalization of flexibility
b what are the states (statements) that are to remain true of the system - for an enterprise, we may assume these are given by the balance sheet, or some extended version of a balance sheet?
c what are the changes (classes of change) to which the system must be able to respond without altering the truth of the statements in (b)?
d what is the perspective from which these changes / non-changes are to be assessed? who are the stakeholders?
However, this raises a number of theoretical problems.
• In order to assess the variety of possible actions, we have to have some measure of the difference between two actions. Thus (from the flexibility point of view) it is presumably better to have two radically different choices of action than to have two similar choices.
• Each possible action may be a reasonable (i.e. not bad) response to a set of possible changes in the environment. This requires a model of reasonableness, which is highly problematic.
unfortunately, many of the classic works in the field are out of print
|Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (San Francisco CA: Chandler Publishing Company, 1972)|
|Gregory Bateson, A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind (edited R.E. Donaldson, New York: Harper Collins, 1991)|
|Paul S. Goodman & Associates (eds), Change in Organizations (San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass, 1984), especially contributions by Kenwyn K Smith and Karl E. Weick.|
|John R. Kimberly & Robert E. Quinn (eds), New Futures: The Challenge of Managing Corporate Transitions (Homewood IL: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1984), especially contributions by Kenwyn K Smith and the editors.|
|Gareth Morgan, Images of Organization (London: Sage, 1986), especially Chapter 8. New full edition (1997). Avoid the abridged edition (1998).|
The first draft of this document was written in December 1993, as part of the Enterprise Computing Project. A major revision was done in October 1997.
We are currently working on aspects of the Adaptive Business, as part of the SITE project. Further material will be published here when it's ready.
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