Sunday, December 13, 2009

Idea for SplotchUp!

I've been searching for a reason to begin working on the Splotch Up site. Many of the people at the Web Design Meetup suggested concepts and thoughts on usability or touched on the means to the end -- mainly in the model of socially edited networks -- but I lacked the compelling reason why anyone would choose to put the effort out or visit the site. A recent Infonomics piece suggests a reason: as a legal defense.

As it happens, a company which cannot demonstrate that it knows its own resources also cannot provide an effective defense against claims of neglect, malfeasance, legally inadmissible documentation, etc.

To quote Hugh Laurie as fictional character Dr. House, "Everybody lies." Knowing your own process is in general a good thing, but it is dreadfully difficult to define business processes with precision and extremely resource intensive to do so with any reasonable accuracy over time. I learned this lesson acutely through my years developing enterprise quality systems, particularly change management tools to support ISO9001 implementations. What I found was the broader business analog to what Dr. David Parnas (an early advocate of the concept of encapsulation in modular programming) wrote about in his snarkily titled paper, "A Rational Design Process: How and Why To Fake It". Our institutions are us, and to the extent that we have a tendency to make stuff up, so do our institutions.

Legally, documentation is used as a form of forensic evidence. Just as DNA can degrade over time so do other forms of forensic evidence. That includes documentation. Like many engineers of his time, Parnas was a strong advocate of precise documentation; the problem is that the more you invest in documentation which does not participate fully in the enacted process, the less you have to enact the process, and the greater the real depreciation will be in the documentation asset. When was the last time your accounting rolls listed the value of your documentation or the amount they depreciated over the past year? Probably never. So right there you have an obvious contradiction between ideological business doctrine and its practice.

Weinberg described the ethical conditions, particularly incongruities between the values of employees and the values reflected by the institutional practices. The lack of congruence led to what he termed cognitive dissonance. The static picture offered by ISO9000 motivated approaches to documentation are bad to the extent that it cannot effectively document what is necessarily a set of dynamically interleaving, fluid processes. The typical solution is to reduce the precision, introduce weasel-wording and hedging language, and basically make process documentation read like a tome of Nostradamus: easily interpreted to mean anything the reader wishes to infer. That is also known as plausible deniability.

Your garden-variety Big Corporation process documentation is just a means of covering up one's legal backside, and is only secondarily a business or engineering artifact. That's the chief fallacy of standards like ISO9000 and CMM. They are meant to provide a framework for cover for ethical incongruences -- that is, they are lie management platforms. That may be why such companies come up against such high levels of dissonance when attempting to incorporate XP or other Agile methods.

Your garden-variety Small Company on the other hand, cannot afford big up front documentation, but lack of some form of resource identification is an absolute roadblock to scaling up and dealing with situations rationally. Whether you're small or big, it is generally your people acting heroically to save your skin when things go wrong. When properly utilized however, documentation is an intrinsic part of the enacted system, not a waste product produced as a side-effect of the process. Or rather, it is both a side-effect of the process as well as a product that re-enters the food chain in the next cycle. Enabling that is what Splotch Up is about.
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