Monday, October 28, 2002

What is more important?

The group or the individuals who make up that group?

Before you answer lets pause and think about this a moment. We are talking about Holism vs. Atomism. Holism (I think it would be more appropriately spelled Wholism) emphasizes the whole system. Atomism (derived from breaking things down to their atoms) emphasizes the qualities of the individual parts.

Before we jump into debate, note that both are compatible and necessary. A hydrogen atom has it's properties because of it's WHOLE nature, but without the individual neutrons, protons and electrons, it wouldn't be possible to have the atom at all. Or better yet, a brick by itself isn't much, but put a lot of them together with mortar and you have yourself a wall!

Atomism tends to get more attention because as humans we like to think of ourselves as individuals. We are unique and special. We even, to a certain extent, want to believe that without us the world around us just wouldn't be the same.

Holism is something engineers have to think about. When I build a network I cannot concentrate on one piece of the puzzle at a time. Well, I can, but it's very inefficient. Better to look at the WHOLE picture and plan accordingly. Anyone who has done a budget knows this philosophy as well.

The reason this has been on my mind lately is because my office has taken a bit of an Atomistic view. It has splintered into departments. Not as much of a big deal for larger companies, but we are not a big company. The departments do not work together to solve company problems. They are concerned more for their needs. In a business where each department needs to assist the others, this causes a lot of strife and bad moral.

There were many reasons for the office to fall into “atoms”, but one of the causes was a new and faulty work flow. The way data is distributed through the office was built over time with no structure. It was also built by those who had to implement it, not necessarily those who needed it. In short the processes are inefficient, designed for or by the wrong people and the system is not being utilized to it's optimum efficiency and never will in its current state.

That's where I come in. I noted a couple months ago about a big project I was hoping to get approved. Well I did and I'm the project leader. As far as upper management is concerned the primary goal is installing and setting up a new CRM package. However, that is my secondary goal. My primary goal is to get the office working as a team again by helping design new, efficient and usable work flows.

I have assembled a team of “super users” from each department, including managers (mine is one of them). By detailing our current work flow I can do two things. One, I can see where there are weak points and work on fixing those areas. Two, I'll be able to design the application/database to work with our needs.

The first is very important to me. Part of the reason our current system has so many points of failure is because it was not designed with the users of the system in mind. They looked at the WHOLE, but not the INDIVIDUALS. A great number of “great” features were not used or slowly phased out. Pieces were added on after the system was in place, making them inconvenient and thus not used. If during their normal work flow they are asked to do something out of the way, it's not going to stay in favor and will eventually fail.

Just as a network has to be analyzed and planned before implementation, so must business work flow. When building a network I need to know what will be on that network. Will the applications and traffic warrant 100 megabit hubs and switches? Will there be a need for fiber optics? What is the future growth potential? Etc. etc. Any good engineer HAS to do these things. Planning is necessary to the success of a project.

To use another analogy, do you know why Compaq and IBM computers are so popular among businesses? Not necessarily because their parts are better, but as a whole they are better. Let me explain. Compaq and IBM (and likely other OEMs) build and test their configurations rigorously before offering them up to the public. That's why there are only a few configuration options. Those are the tested and known to be “good” configurations. Others may work but may not be as efficient or stable.

“Good” is highly subjective. Whether it's a person, computer or process, the needs will be different from one person/department/company to the next. You can build a computer with all the “best” parts, as reviewed by other users on the Internet, but that doesn't mean those parts will create a WHOLE “best” computer. The “best” memory might not work on the “best” motherboard.

The same applies to businesses and processes. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made so that the WHOLE is a success. The whole work flow could be disrupted because one department wants something special that will cost the company thousands of dollars and will require customization. That INDIVIDUAL need will have to be pruned to save the WHOLE process.

In a business especially, the bottom line is the business. The WHOLE is the goal of everyone. If it's not the whole starts to fail. I'm sure you all can apply that same philosophy to many other situations in our lives. Atomism and Holism cannot work alone. They work together to produce a dynamic system that can evolve and grow. Hold to one alone and that system is doomed to fail.

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