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Thursday, February 26, 2009


As a radical alternative to the Kipling set of questions (who-what-where-when-why-how) favoured by John Zachman, the VPEC-T set of questions (values, policies, events, content, trust) seems to give us an intriguingly different way of investigating (engaging with) an enterprise.

At present I have no direct experience with VPEC-T, but what I've read about it makes a lot of sense. So I thought it would be useful to dig a bit deeper into the systems theory underlying VPEC-T, not as a challenge but merely in the spirit of taking things forward.

My concern about any list of questions is that it easily generates the illusion of completeness. So I wonder whether VPEC-T is supposed to be complete in any sense; if so, is there some grounding in systems theory that supports this particular selection of questions? (And if not, does it matter as long as it works?)

The first chapter of the VPEC-T book includes the following statement.

"VPEC-T breaks down all the aspects of an Information System into five core dimensions."

How do we know that five is both necessary and sufficient? Did the creators experiment with a larger or smaller set of dimensions, before converging upon the present set, or were there always five?

If practitioners feel the need for alternative dimensions, are these considered as legitimate extensions, or are they automatically subsumed into the standard set? I note that Risk (and possibly Uncertainty) is included under Trust. But where (for example) is Meaning?

The first worked example in Chapter One is a Dinner Party. If a guest brings something to a Dinner Party, say a cake or a bowl of salad, how is this received (interpreted) by the host and the other guests - as a generous gesture or as an implicit challenge to the hospitality of the host? Etiquette (policy) says whether a guest should bring a bottle, or a bunch of flowers, but etiquette doesn't reveal what the bottle or its absence means.

So may I bring another concept ("Meaning") to the dinner party that is VPEC-T - or is that a breach of etiquette, because I am merely a guest at someone else's dinner party?

Now, if you just want to pick up a good method and practise it, then questions like these may sound either like Niggling or Due Diligence. First I submit the method to some searching critique and then I make a judgement. If I decide that the method has passed the test, then I may adopt it. Once I've adopted the method, I hope I won't need to ask these questions ever again. (In fact, if I've really adopted the method properly, fully internalized it, I may never again be able to ask these questions with an open mind.)

But that's not what I'm trying to do here. I see it as an essential part of systems thinking that we never stop paying attention to questions like these. Any of the methods and systems approaches that have been discussed in this group should stand up to (and, I hope, cheerfully welcome) this kind of reflexive inquiry.

Roy Grubb has posted an extended review on his website - VPEC-T and business information systems. I was happy to read Roy's comment and review, especially his remark that "it hasn't reached the stage of being an approach that can be adopted unquestioningly".

But is that an aspiration, and for whom? At present, I think what people find so exciting about VPEC-T is the way it appears to offer a powerful critique of "traditional" approaches, and that certainly comes across from Roy's review. And perhaps many of the early adopters and practitioners are highly experienced consultants who were already dissatisfied with the "traditional" approach and find it a useful way of consolidating and extending what they were already doing.

But we inhabit a world in which there are commercial pressures to convert method-as-critique into method-as-recipe, so that consultants with less experience can "Trust" the method to guide them in unfamiliar territory, and institutionally risk-averse clients with formal procurement procedures can "Trust" a consultancy to deliver predictable results.

At that stage, will the early fans grumble that VPEC-T has "gone commercial", and lost its systems thinking "soul"? As when indie rock bands turn into pop groups (Marc Bolan). Or Bob Dylan and the Incredible String Band picking up electric guitars.

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