Last weekend I was reading an article on the human brain in the local dead-tree newspaper magazine insert (currently available online, too) and was struck by the concept of plasticity. In the case of the article it was particularly neuroplasticity, but my interest moved onto the applicability of the idea to organisations.
Achieving business "agility" is a hot topic in IT architecture and in management circles at the moment – that hopefully via some application of architectural thinking and some nifty software our organisation will be better placed to respond to changing business conditions, opportunities and threats. Agility is something I believe is possible with a well-executed SOA strategy for instance, but I wonder whether an enterprise architecture should be more concerned with agility, or plasticity.
In this context, what do I mean by "plasticity"? When talking about the brain, plasticity refers to the permanent and ongoing changes as a result of new experiences – as the above article suggests: my brain has been changed permanently by writing that last sentence, and yours has been changed by reading it. An organisation is not a sentient being of itself, but it is made up of humans, all with "plastic" brains – so the organisation's plasticity is potentially an aggregation of the people within it, and their changing experiences, and those individual neurological differences that impact on the work going on there.
Plasticity strikes me as being a longer-term effect than agility, which is more reactive (and not necessarily permanent). When looking at architectural abstractions, agility seems to come as a result of a tactical implementation of an architectural pattern like SOA, whereas permanent, foundational changes in the organisation's "brain" should come as a result of a more strategic and high-level enterprise model that offers an organisation the ability to continue growing and adapting over a much longer period than the next quarterly report to shareholders.
The strategic importance of the concept is this: agility won't happen unless you do something to enable it; but plasticity happens without any effort on your part – and the resulting "brain" may be sub-optimal without the guidance of a framework designed to develop the organisation into something better than it is now.
Of course, it's not a question of agile OR plastic – just as SOA can fit usefully into a more abstract enterprise architecture, an organisation can be both agile and plastic. I believe it needs to be both if it wants to last.