Why is a stratification not a universal hierarchy?

by Philip Boxer

In describing the 3 asymmetries, Richard establishes a six-layer stratification relating underlying technologies to ultimate contexts-of-use. Thus in the case of orthotics, if we approach it from the point of view of a manufacturer of orthotic footwear, these layers look like increasingly general descriptions of the contexts within which the underlying technology will come to be used: technology=soles, product=footwear, business=footwear-to-order, solution=fitted footwear, customer demand=orthopedic patients, customer experience=difficulties in mobility. Is this therefore not just a hierarchy moving from the particular of the technology to the general of its uses?

If, as a supplier, we want to take a symmetric view of demand, then this is true – ‘orthopedic patients with difficulties in mobility’ is a general definition of the footwear manufacturer’s market.

But in distinguishing the third asymmetry we define the relationship to demand as being to a particular context-of-use that demands a particular form of orchestration and composition of services and products in order to satisfy it. Thus if we take up the perspective of the customer experience=the patient’s experience of living with their condition through its life, then the customer demand=that treatment for my condition that will have the greatest impact on my through-life experience at this time, and the solution=the treatment that is fitting for the current situation within its through-life context. Not surprising, then, that one of the major issues faced when insourcing clinicians employed by the manufacturers was how to reflect the through-life dimension of performance in the way the clinical service was contracted.

In finding the edge, we describe the particular form of orchestration and composition needed in response to asymmetric demand in terms of a wedge of services that needs its own four-colour model of how it is aligned to demand. Thus for our patient, the customer experience is in the black quadrant, the customer demand and its particular solution in the red quadrant, the business and its product(s) in the white quadrant, and the technology in the blue quadrant. East-West dominance means having a business agile enough to support the particular white-red organisation needed to sustain a relationship to the distinct forms of demand arising at its edges. But now the 6-layer stratification can no longer be thought of as a hierarchy, but rather as a particular structuring of the alignment between supply and demand – something more horizontal than vertical.

The way we understand the four-colour model is therefore central to the way this alignment is defined. In order to be able to construct it, three distinctions have to be made:

  • Internal//External: what is internal to the way we do business vs what is not. This distinguishes the provider of the insourced clinical service from the environment into which the service is being provided.
  • Viability//Identity: the way things work vs what determines the shape of the way things work. Clinicians learn about how orthoses are made and how they can be used on the musculo-skeletal system (the way things work), but the particular ways these are shaped depend on the patients’ characteristics and the way the manufacturer chooses to do business.
  • Addressed//Ignored: the domain of reality (later called the domain of relevance) being addressed vs not addressed. The domain defined from the point of view of the manufacturer is going to be much narrower than that defined from the point of view of the patient’s needs. The way the domain is defined is fundamental to governance-at-the-edge, and implicates the ‘I’ of the beholder. Thus when demand is assumed to be symmetric, the ‘I’ can be the view from the top/centre of the supplying business. But when it is assumed to be asymmetric, the ‘I’ must be defined collaboratively through the way the relationship at the edge is itself constructed.

The 3 asymmetries and their associated economies correspond to the relationships between the blue-white, white-red and red-black quadrants, accounting for the particular way the quadrants are held in relation to each other. By including the third asymmetry, the stratification can no longer take the form of a universal hierarchy, but instead must be particular to the relationship to demand. It is this which presents the business with its double challenge, and the necessity to shift from an object-oriented to a subject-oriented approach to modeling the relationship of the enterprise to the demands of its clients.

Managing the SoS Value Cycle

by Philip Boxer

The traditional ‘V’ of the software verification cycle is described in PSS-05-10 by the European Space Agency as follows:

“Software development starts in the top left-hand corner, progresses down the left-hand ‘specification’ side to the bottom of the ‘V’ and then onwards up the right-hand ‘production’ side. The V-formation emphasises the need to verify each output specification against its input specification, and the need to verify the software at each stage of production against its corresponding specification.” (March 1995)

Work within INCOSE by Jack Ring and others on ‘Intelligent Systems Engineering’ makes this ‘V’ the lower part of a System Value Cycle that seeks to align its focus on System with an upper inverted ‘V’ focused on Value with the problem to be addressed at its apex, and the relationship between the two ‘V’s focusing on Purpose. In our terms, the bottom ‘V’ is about designing a structure-determined system (of systems), while the top ‘V’ describes the structure-determining processes by which such a system is itself composed with other systems to useful ends.

Hillary Sillitto in the INCOSE 2006 conference relates this cycle to the way the scope and boundaries of the resultant system emerge from this cycle through the way four different kinds of question about degrees of freedom are answered:


Each of these questions relate to different constituencies with differing vested interests in how they are answered. How, then, is this cycle to be managed as a whole? What happens if we approach this cycle not from the point of view of the systems, but from the point of view of the demands?

As long as the problem remains a generic one based on symmetric assumptions about the nature of demand, the top ‘V can be addressed independently of the bottom ‘V’. But as soon as the demand situation is such that the demands emerging from it are necessarily asymmetric and dynamic (as described here), this is no longer possible – the systems have to be understood as more than socio-technical, and it becomes necessary to model the structure-determining as well as the structure-determined processes.

The need for Through-Life Capability Management (TLCM) is one such situation. The acquisition framework needed to support it is still emerging (see here), but it represents a step-change in the relationship between purchaser and provider that involves both parties in the whole cycle. We can expect to see the need for it emerging elsewhere as the asymmetric and dynamic nature of demand becomes increasingly insistent, for example:

TLCM is an emerging form of asymmetric governance.


by Philip Boxer

The collaborative approach depends on there being a service infrastructure agile enough to be under-determining of the way the customer’s demands can be responded to. Put another way, the supplying business needs to find its edge where it can be structure-determining in how it responds to the customer, rather than being structure-determined by its infrastructure. At this edge, it is in a position to offer cKP services that can be responsive to the customer’s context-of-use. But how is it to work collaboratively with the customer in agreeing the nature of those cKP services?

The example below comes from working with a computing services business with banking customers. The customer was operating in a problem domain in which the fundamental concern with managing risk required them to manage two kinds of problem – looking for market inefficiencies that could create investment opportunities for the bank, and managing the ‘value at risk’ associated with existing investments:


At the bottom of the diagram is ‘data warehousing’, understood to be a generic service that can be provided in a way that does not require knowledge of the specific bank’s situation, and ‘c-level‘ (it is always rising) is the level above which the bank’s specific context-of-use can no longer be ignored. In between c-level and the problem domain is a knowledge domain, in which knowledge about the bank’s context-of-use enables cKP-type services to be offered. The situations within this knowledge domain then identify opportunities for the supplier to provide services that cumulatively build on each other to meet their larger need in the problem domain.

This is an effects ladder, and it provided the bank customer and the computing services supplier with a framework within which to build a shared picture of the bank’s context-of-use. In the diagram below you see this generalised, with the relationship of rcKP services to the ladder. This adds the concept of a ‘knowledge ceiling’, being the level above which problems become too large to solve.  An effects ladder is therefore a way of thinking through how such problems can be made tractable by bringing aspects of them below the knowledge-ceiling and/or raising the ceiling by becoming able to take on more of the complexity of the problem.


Strategy-at-the-edge requires that a double challenge be met which balances internal changes with external opportunities. The effects ladder provides the means of agreeing with the customer how effects need to support their demand situation within their context-of-use.

Triple Loop Learning

by Philip Boxer
I have always found Kolb’s experiential learning cycle a useful way of approaching the place of reflection in learning, for example in reflective learning, learning as a subversive activity, or judging the quality of development. But despite its being named as an experiential cycle, I never found it well rooted in the being of the person doing the learning. In what follows, I propose two ways of short-circuiting the cycle in order to more clearly distinguish learning rooted in the learner’s way of being. This can be done by introducing a gap between expectations and experience as an outcome from the concrete experience of the learner themselves:
Three different kinds of response are identified to this gap, providing a useful way of distinguishing between single-, double- and triple-loop learning: [1,2]

  • Single loop: the gap is feedback to the way an existing plan is being used, improving the plan. For example in quality programmes measuring the deviation in outputs from the norm. The expectations against which the gap is identified are set by the intent behind the particular way in which the plan is being used. For example, was the treatment that had been planned for the patient carried out effectively?
  • Double loop: the gap is feedback to the efficacy of the approach itself, leading to improvements, refinements and adaptations to the approach. The expectations against which the gap is identified are set by the intent behind the formation of the approach itself. For example, were the right assumptions used in the way the care plan was itself constructed to treat these kinds of condition?
  • Triple loop: the gap is feedback on the effects generated in the situation experienced, whether or not those effects are consistent with the intent behind the approach and its application. The expectations against which the gap is identified are set by the nature of the dilemmas experienced within its larger context. For example, did the outcome for the patient suggest that a different approach needed to be adopted in the way care plans were constructed for these kinds of situation in order to address the emergent dilemmas more effectively?

The difference between double-and triple-loop is subtle here. If we approach our expectations of the concrete experience in terms of supply-side and demand-side perspectives, then it is the demand-side perspective that distinguishes triple-loop learning, placing the primary emphasis on the value deficit associated with the asymmetric demand in the situation itself, the asymmetry being understood in terms of emergent dilemmas.[3] The purpose of the ‘plus-one’ exercise is to provide a means of getting at what these dilemmas might be, and to identify their underlying impossibilites that may then drive network interventions..

[1]. A constructivist perspective on triple loop is to be found in Peschl, M. F. (2007). “Triple-loop learning as foundation for profound change, individual cultivation, and radical innovation: construction processes beyond scientific and rational knowledge.” Constructivist Foundations 2(2-3): 136-145.
[2]. It was Argyris who popularised double loop: Argyris, C. and D. A. Schon (1974). Theory-in-Practice: increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
[3]. To give more precision to this distinction, we will need to look more deeply into the nature of reflexive process.

The hole-in-the-middle

by Philip Boxer

The blog on the health service distinguished between three levels of involvement with the patient moving from (1) being centred on providing specific treatments, to (2) being centred on episodes of care, to (3) being centred on the patient’s experience of care over time. These are levels originally separated out by the paper by Prahalad and Ramaswamy on The New Frontier of Experience Innovation. They made the more general distinction between competing in a product space, a solution space and an experience space.

The point they were making was that the third of these required a fundamentally different approach to the relationship to the customer, which I have described in terms of rcKP and the third asymmetry.

The blog gave an account of this difference in terms of changes in level of governance architecture – from the relatively internal concerns of the first two levels with the governance of care provision and of clinical referral pathways, to the through-the-life-of-the-condition concern with the patient’s care at the third level. It then concluded that this third form of governance:

“… in turn requires forms of support and transparency that can enable such change to happen, by providing funding for the transition, by providing support for this way of working out how to effect change, and by ensuring that the changes made can be sustained in a way that is accountable.”

Putting this together into a 3 x 3 creates a value stairs – establishing where you are and where you need to be on this value stairs, given the competitive asymmetries in force, is fundamental to deciding how to exploit the three potential asymmetries. Working with another client gave another perspective on the challenges involved – a telecommunications service provider whose role it was to provide just such forms of support and transparency.

In this case the levels in the value stairs were expressed in terms of the contractual framework within which the relationship with the customer unfolded over time. What characterised the resultant space as a whole was that the bottom-left three squares were very efficiently occupied by the enterprise on the basis of commodity services, while the top-right three were provided on a cottage industry basis by a high value-adding consultancy and bespoke services to relatively small numbers of large enterprises.


Given that competitive forces were driving the enterprise up the value stairs, the challenge had become the hole-in-the-middle. This was too expensive to satisfy by using the bespoke approach used top-right, and the variety of demands too complex to be satisfied using the bottom-left commoditised basis. In terms of what we need to learn about complex systems, the challenge was to find ways of operating in the collaborative quadrant below:

What was the answer? To start with, the whole business infrastructure had to be digitised so that it could be offered on a service-oriented basis. Then to leverage this capability, different ways of managing the relationship with the customer had to be found – the enterprise had to develop an approach to managing this infrastructure that could be dynamically customised from the edge of the business. This they are still in the process of doing.

More than socio-technical systems analysis

by Philip Boxer

Larry Hirschhorn and his co-authors raise an interesting question in their paper on sociotechnical systems in an age of mass customisation. They consider what happens in a pilot plant whose sole object is to learn new ways of organising production processes. What they discover is that in the place of worker autonomy as a goal, the meaning of the work becomes pre-eminent, and creating task boundaries becomes a dynamic collaborative process in a way that dissolves the old worker-manager distinction. This focus on meaning goes beyond the old focus on improving the quality of life in stable production environments:

“… When socio-technical systems theory (STS) first emerged as a discipline its moral roots in a worker’s right to competence and its political roots in industrial democracy enabled its practitioners to reach beyond the narrow issue of industrial efficiency, but the era of mass customisation has so up-ended the occupational structure – the distinction between working and managing is slipping away – that STS, a creature of the era of mass production, may slip into history.”

So in what ways must our understanding of socio-technical systems be extended to build on their rich legacy? Two points emerge as being key:

  • the dynamic nature of the relationship that is needed with the context for the work of the pilot plant in terms of what the customer wants, and
  • the meaning of the work within the larger context of the enterprise and its goals.

The first of these reflects the shifting of power over service design to the edge, arising from having to address the third asymmetry. The second raises the larger question of how that ‘edge’ is defined in the interests of the enterprise when demand becomes asymmetric – the what, how, who/m and why all have to be made responsive to demand.

So what does this require of the kinds of modelling we use? Two kinds of innovation are needed.

Firstly, we need to use an approach that can model the structure-determining processes as well as those that are structure-determined.

Secondly, we need to add to the models of task, information and sentient systems the related models of the organisation of task and information systems, and of the contexts out of which demands are arising. This gives us five distinct perspectives on the enterprise:

    (1) the task systems, (2) the information systems, (3) the vertical (hierarchical) and (4) horizontal (collaborative) organisation of those task and information systems, and (5) the organisation of demand within its customer context.

Putting all of these together as a composite model of the ways these systems are or are not consistent with each other is itself an expression of the ‘I’ of the modeller(s). And this is a way in which to collaborate in the construction of shared meaning.

Asymmetric Leadership

by Philip Boxer

We have been used to speaking about asymmetry in the context of asymmetric demand and asymmetric governance etc in the blog on asymmetric design. These concepts and practices are being pursued through my work with the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

But what of the work associated with Carole Eigen on questions of role and leadership? For me this belongs with another kind of question associated with how leadership is to be understood within the context of an enterprise. So this blog is intended to be a place where I can follow this question. So here goes!

And just for starters, what’s with this idea of asymmetric leadership?

The idea of asymmetry has been used so far to speak of that about the other which remains not known – unfamiliar. So to work with asymmetric demand is to accept a limitation to what the enterprise knows which may challenge the very idea the enterprise has of itself. What we are doing here is starting from the Lacanian understanding of the divided subject – a person’s relationship to themselves in what they really want is by definition asymmetric to themselves. Put another way, however much I might want to know about me – about my wants, needs etc, there will always be something of myself that remains beyond my knowing – that remains personally asymmetric.

So what? Well, it creates a particular challenge for leadership, because the leader is placed between two kinds of asymmetry, in which the identity of the enterprise is constantly emerging out of these two kinds of relation: the first is the leader’s relation to their own identity as having been ‘chosen’ by the enterprise, i.e. personal asymmetry; while the second is the enterprise’s relation to the identity of its customers/patients etc., i.e. demand asymmetry.

The usual way of approaching the challenge of leadership is to express it in terms of the needs of the people working for the the enterprise. But what we want to do here is to extend this, so that the question of the leader’s relation to his or her own identity precedes the question of what identity needs to be realised through the behaviors of the enterprise.

This situates leadership with a challenge: in meeting the needs of the client-customer as ‘other’ (i.e. meeting asymmetric demands), to what extent must leadership go beyond what it knows of itself (i.e. addressing personal asymmetry)? And through what forms of authority is this to become possible and sustainable?

These are the questions that we want to follow here.