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Sensemaking and (re)discovering the value of metaphors

Hans Nouwens
May 25, 2023

As an enterprise architect, our responsibility is to support decision-making. Using the organisation strategy to create an IT strategy. However, a much-heard issue is the lack of an organisation strategy that has sufficient concrete elements to derive such a technology-focussed IT strategy. So, a conditional key responsibility of an enterprise architect, is to align the purpose of any organisation with its overall strategy and goals.

This creates a new challenge for us. How to describe a purpose of an organisation? Why does it exists? Why does it offer its services, and to whom? And most importantly: does the resulting description resonate with the organisation leadership and employees? What culture does this organisation nurture? And what do they want to be? What is their vision of themselves and their customers? We need to do some sensemaking!

In this context of sensemaking, we are (re)discovering the value of metaphors. Two dominant metaphors are:

Looking at an organisation as a river. A constantly changing and flowing resource that is integral part of the environment.

Image by Dagmar Klauz from Pixabay

Looking at an organisation as a mechanical device. A clockwork with an internal driving force, geared towards efficiency.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Having worked in the Higher Education sector for multiple decades, for me it is easy to use this domain knowledge to write examples to explain this not so obvious responsibility. And because we all underwent to some sort of schooling, some longer than others, these examples are easily recognisable too. Combining the structured textual abilities of a now infamous generative AI technology, my domain contextual knowledge and some editing, this is what I (or we) came up with.

See the major difference in the results, the different hooks for describing policies and even the role as enterprise architect.

Purpose

What is an educational organisation,
using the river metaphor,

and using the machine metaphor?
The purpose of an educational organisation can be described using the river metaphor. In this metaphor, the organisation is seen as a river, with a clear direction and flow towards a specific destination.  

The navigator of the educational organisation is the leadership team or board of directors, who set the course and direction of the organisation. They determine the mission, vision, and values of the organisation, and provide guidance and direction to ensure that the organisation stays on course.  

The educational organisation’s purpose is to guide students along the river, helping them to navigate the currents and obstacles they encounter along the way. The students are the passengers on this journey, each with their own unique path to follow. The teachers and staff of the organisation act as the guides and navigators, helping the students to stay on course and reach their individual destinations.  

In this metaphor, the educational organisation is seen as a dynamic and ever-changing entity, with different currents and eddies that students must navigate to reach their goals. The purpose of the organisation is to provide a clear and safe pathway for students to follow, while also allowing for flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances.  

Ultimately, the purpose of the educational organisation is to provide students with the tools and knowledge they need to navigate the river of life and reach their full potential.
The purpose of an educational organisation can also be described using the mechanism metaphor. In this metaphor, the organisation is seen as a complex machine with interconnected parts, each working together towards a common goal.  

The driving force of the educational organisation is the motivation and dedication of its teachers, staff, and students. This driving force powers the machine, enabling it to function effectively and efficiently.  

The purpose of the educational organisation is to provide a structured and organized learning environment, where students can acquire knowledge and skills through the systematic workings of the educational machine. The curriculum and teaching methods are the parts of the machine that enable students to learn and grow, while the teachers and staff act as the operators and mechanics, ensuring that the machine runs smoothly.  

In this metaphor, the educational organisation is seen as a complex and intricate machine, with each part playing a crucial role in achieving the overall goal of educating students. The purpose of the organisation is to produce successful and knowledgeable students, who will go on to contribute to society and the workforce.  

Ultimately, the purpose of the educational organisation is to create a well-oiled machine that efficiently produces educated individuals who are equipped to succeed in their chosen paths. The driving force behind this machine is the dedication and motivation of all those involved in the educational process.

Wow! It almost looks like the machine metaphor is inside-out looking, and the river is customer-centric, outside-in looking.

Rationales

The purpose is the objective or goal that one wants to achieve, while the rationale explains why that objective or goal is important or necessary. The justification.

What potential rationales are there,
using the river metaphor,

And using the machine metaphor?
The rationales behind an educational organisation, as described with a river and flow metaphor, are closely related to the characteristics and dynamics of a river and its flow.  

One rationale is that of natural progression, where the educational organisation seeks to guide and facilitate the natural flow of knowledge and learning. This involves creating an environment that supports the natural progression of learning, allowing students to move seamlessly from one level of knowledge to the next, much like how a river flows downstream.  

Another rationale is that of nourishment, where the educational organisation aims to provide the necessary resources and support to nourish and enrich student learning. This involves providing access to quality learning materials, resources, and tools, as well as creating an environment that supports and encourages learning and growth.  

A third rationale is that of adaptability, where the educational organisation seeks to be flexible and responsive to changing student needs and learning styles. This involves creating an environment that is adaptable to the needs of students, allowing for different approaches to learning, and embracing new technologies and teaching methodologies.  

Overall, the rationales behind an educational organisation as described with a river and flow metaphor are focused on facilitating the natural flow of knowledge and learning, providing nourishment and support for student growth, and being adaptable to changing circumstances. By achieving these rationales, the educational organisation can fulfil its purpose of providing a dynamic and effective learning environment for students.
The rationales behind an educational organisation, as described with a machine metaphor, are closely related to the parts and functions of the machine.  

One rationale is efficiency, which is achieved by ensuring that each part of the educational machine is functioning optimally and in sync with each other. This can be achieved through the development and implementation of effective teaching methodologies, efficient administrative processes, and modern technology.  

Another rationale is quality control, which involves ensuring that the educational machine produces the desired outcomes in terms of student learning and achievement. This can be achieved through the use of standardised testing and assessment tools, as well as regular evaluation of curriculum and teaching methods.  

A third rationale is adaptability, which involves the ability of the educational machine to adapt and respond to changing student needs and societal demands. This can be achieved through ongoing professional development for teachers and staff, the integration of new technologies, and the implementation of new and innovative teaching methods.  

Overall, the rationales behind an educational organisation as described with a machine metaphor are focused on ensuring that the machine runs efficiently, produces quality results, and is adaptable to changing circumstances. By achieving these rationales, the educational organisation can fulfil its purpose of providing a structured and effective learning environment for students.

Role

What would be my role, given these metaphoric interpretations of the organisation?

My role as enterprise architect,
using the river metaphor,

and using the machine metaphor.
As an enterprise architect, my role is to act as the navigator of the educational organisation, guiding it along the natural flow of knowledge and learning. The purpose of the educational organisation is to facilitate this flow, nourishing and enriching student learning as it progresses downstream, much like a river.

To achieve this purpose, I work to create an environment that supports the natural flow of knowledge and learning, providing the necessary resources and support to nourish and enrich student learning. This includes developing an enterprise architecture framework that encompasses all aspects of the organisation, including its systems, processes, data, and technology, and ensuring that all components are aligned with the natural flow of knowledge and learning.

In this framework, I work collaboratively with key stakeholders within the educational organisation, including administrators, teachers, students, and parents, to gain a better understanding of their needs and requirements. By doing so, I can develop solutions that are tailored to the natural flow of knowledge and learning within the organisation, and ensure that all components are aligned with its purpose.

Ultimately, my role as the navigator of the educational organisation is to guide it along the natural flow of knowledge and learning, nourishing and enriching student learning as it progresses downstream. By doing so, the organisation can achieve its purpose of providing a structured and effective learning environment for students, ultimately leading to improved student learning and achievement.
The purpose of an educational organisation is to provide a structured and effective learning environment for students, and as an enterprise architect, the goal is to ensure that this purpose is achieved in the most efficient and effective way possible.

One way to achieve this alignment is by developing and implementing a comprehensive enterprise architecture framework that encompasses all aspects of the educational organisation, including its systems, processes, data, and technology.
This framework should be designed to support the purpose of the organisation, ensuring that all components are aligned with its overall strategy and goals.

Another way to achieve this alignment is by engaging with key stakeholders within the educational organisation, including administrators, teachers, students, and parents. By working collaboratively with these stakeholders, the enterprise architect can gain a better understanding of the needs and requirements of the organisation, and develop solutions that are tailored to its specific goals and objectives.

Ultimately, the role of the enterprise architect in an educational organisation is to ensure that all components of the organisation are aligned with its purpose of providing a structured and effective learning environment for students. By doing so, the organisation can achieve its goals and objectives in the most efficient and effective way possible, ultimately leading to improved student learning and achievement.

To me, this exercise clearly shows the huge importance of using metaphors. It is not the case that the left is more modern, the right is old-fashioned. Left is better for students, right is more efficient. The most interesting parts are the differences between the two.

For instance, the two different visions. Given these, imagine how different decisions will be made.

In this metaphor, the educational organisation is seen as a dynamic and ever-changing entity, with different currents and eddies that students must navigate to reach their goals. The purpose of the organisation is to provide a clear and safe pathway for students to follow, while also allowing for flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances.  In this metaphor, the educational organisation is seen as a complex and intricate machine, with each part playing a crucial role in achieving the overall goal of educating students. The purpose of the organisation is to produce successful and knowledgeable students, who will go on to contribute to society and the workforce.  

Conclusion

As enterprise architects, we need to be aware of the plethora of available metaphors. Be extremely aware of the effect they have on our way of thinking, our way of working, our assumptions, our mind-set, our deliverables and our effect on the organisations we create and support.

About the author

Enterprise Architect | Netherlands
Hans Nouwens is an experienced enterprise architect with 20+ years of practical experience in the field of ICT, infused with rigorous academic learning. He works as an architect and trusted advisor, mainly for Higher Education institutes.

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