Monday, June 14, 2010

Documentary Epiphenomenalism

Back in the days when I was studying philosophy, one of the things that came up was epiphenomenalism.  It's a concept that I liked, and made sense, and has made even more sense on the back of some of the works of popular neuroscience that I've read in the last few years.  (No really, there are works of popular neuroscience, such as John Ratey's A User's Guide To The Brain.)

It was never really a concept that I had thought to discover in my daily work, though.  However, some recent experiences have forced me, in reaching for a suitable concept to describe a work-related phenomenon, to rely on epiphenomenalism as a very accurate description of something that goes on a lot in the corporate world.

The trigger for this realisation was a process modelling tool that I have been obliged to use in my current work.  It is terrible.  One of the world such tools I have ever encountered.  It has a rich feature set, and it allows the creation of models that go all the way from very high level abstract enterprise models, right down to individual software components within the solutions intended to support those enterprise models.  The problem is, the tool is not good for visualising.  It's output tends to be too big and cumbersome for the screen, and too ungainly to print out.  And if you can print it - which perforce involves the use of a huge plotter - it is still too big to be useful.  If you are looking at the process maps on the screen, it isn't always obvious where and when you can drill in for more information, and you can't tell at a glance how deep or complex a particular area is without going through every individual jot and tittle and drilling down to the n-th degree, basically doing a manual walk through the entire tree from root to every node.  It sucks!

And yet, this is the recommended tool.

It is so bad as a means of sharing information that I have mentally branded it an "information diode".  You can put loads and loads of useful information into it, but get bugger all back out.  (I'm sure my semi-conductor physicist friends will appreciate the fact that there may be a miniscule trickle in the opposite direction, which only goes to strengthen the analogy rather than undermine it.)

It got me thinking about business documentation in general.  So much of what gets written isn't actually used.  It is created because someone thinks it has to be, often created by people whose time is expensive, so the resulting documents are works that cost the organisation a lot of money to create.  And yet, once created, it is never referred to at all - not even once!  It strikes me that a lot of business writing, therefore, is an epiphenomenon of the business.  It is generated by the business.  It has no causal value, to input back in to the processes that created it.  It shapes nothing of the future.

And knowing that this is the case, I am now determined to ensure that, as far as possible, nothing that I create in my job will fall into this category.  But that is sometimes very difficult, and often determined at the whim of one's managers.