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Governing Data with Conway’s Law

Eric Keeney

We exist in a world of systems within systems. We are organisms containing organs, living in an ecosystem within a solar system. We come from a family, which is the archetypal system, and we put much of our capital and energy into building systems. Yet, often these systems produce results that we don’t intend, don't expect, or outright don’t want.

These unexpected outcomes arise for many reasons, and some may be outside of our influence, but with a deeper understanding of how systems work we can yield the great power that systems produce toward our goals.
Conway’s Law
There is an idea that systems are built in a way that mirror the communication channels of the organization that built them. This is known as Conway’s Law and it is not a new idea. In fact, Melvin Conway first wrote about it in an essay in 1968 called “How Do Committees Invent?” in which he states the following:

"Any organization that designs a system (defined more broadly here than just information systems) will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization's communication structure."

Onto Ontological Design
Harvard Business Review explains in a separate article that, “This dynamic occurs because the organization’s governance structures, problem solving routines and communication patterns constrain the space which it searches for solutions...” and futurist Jason Silva describes this phenomenon as ontological designing, which essentially is the idea that everything we design is designing us back. So, given this effect, we might think twice about how our communication is impacted when we design our organizational structures with teams based solely on a specific technology, skill set, or specialist function. This organizational structure can appear to work very well in the short term, but as the communication channels form we will see that silos and other unintended consequences emerge.
Governance Equals Freedom
Conway’s law is not something to be ignored, nor is it something to be feared. We should look to work with the law by understanding that if anything is holding us back it is not the technology. As Patrick Soon-Shiong states in an interview with mHealth, “The barriers technologically don't exist any longer”. Speaking specifically about the healthcare industry he adds that “change management is the next challenge.”

Working with Conway’s law calls for a commitment to removing information barriers and risks that inhibit an organization’s ability to effectively achieve its purpose. This can be achieved through a strong data governance program which, when executed on a day-to-day basis, will reduce operational friction, align team’s approaches with overall objectives, and ensure transparency and knowledge-sharing across the organization.

If we neglect to address how data enters the organization, who is accountable for it, and how it is managed we end up with policies, processes, and communication channels that evolve into a chaotic and ineffective system.

Being disciplined and committing to data governance practices, we will empower our teams to make decisions through clear ownership and with the vision of the company in mind.

Interactive teams who execute tactically, but yet whose work and efforts are prioritized under a strategic framework, are operating with the key ingredients of a learning and adaptive organization. Technology is clearly important, but we must begin by understanding the people that make up our systems if we plan to flourish in this rapidly changing industry.

If you have questions about what a strong data governance program can do for you and your organization, just reach out and we’d be happy to help you find a solution that aligns with your business objectives.