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Improving project management through metamodelling

Andrew Warner
May 22, 2013

There is a category of business modelling tools emerging in response to the growing complexity in business. This complexity is being driven by increasing compliance obligations, a pervasive command and control mentality, finer grained IT systems, expanding HR methods and the extra dimension of complexity that comes from joining them all up into a coherent whole.

As a result it’s becoming more difficult to keep track of all the moving parts in an organisation. Because of this we are drifting increasingly towards a functional silos approach. Not only do we have the traditional silos of manufacturing, marketing, distribution, sales and finance, but we now have IT management, risk management, quality management, work health and safety management, environmental management, innovation management, portfolio management, program management and project management within many organisations.

Because of the overabundance of specialisms we are losing the holistic view of organisations; we can’t see the forest for the trees.

Today’s new breed of business modelling tools allows us to model the business so we can respond to the factors that breed complexity but at the same time keep us from getting mired in the weeds. In essence they let us do the following:

  • Prepare and maintain a repository of concepts and their relationships that match all our mental models.
  • Bring seemingly disconnected domains of knowledge together into a repository that allows the purpose of an organisation to shine through rather than just being a collection of people, activities and policies.
  • Show those responsible for management what they need and want to see without imposing an unreasonable reporting burden on the people doing the work.
  • Provide a means for participants in each of those domains to contribute to that repository thereby reducing the fractures that normally occur.

Managing mental models

The first hurdle these new types of business modelling tools help to overcome is the gap between fantasy and reality; enter the mental model.

We all carry a cloud of mental models in our heads for various purposes and with just enough clarity and extent to avoid making a mess. It doesn’t always work, though, and as the pieces of the puzzle become smaller and more numerous it quickly becomes impossible to keep ordered. Also, others in an organisation may have their own mental models of the same reality which are likely to have little in common with our own.

These modern business modelling tools allow us to build a consistent and coherent framework for our mental model—also known as a metamodel—that you can share with all relevant stakeholders. Put another way, a metamodel is model containing all the parts you need to build a model in a particular domain.

A good modelling tool will not only come with various metamodels suitable for building models in various domains such as projects and programs, standard operating procedures, organisation charts and corporate strategy, but it will also come with the tools for you to create your own custom metamodels in cases that your needs are not covered by the standard metamodels provided out of the box.

So, in the case of program and project management, a metamodel needs to deal with the following concepts:

  • A project needs to communicate that it might be managed by a program.
  • The project also delivers products that enhance capabilities and achieve outcomes.
  • The end of the chain is a realised benefit and its support of an organisational objective.

This will result in a metamodel that delivers a common dictionary, ideally built on widely used mental models.

On top of the conceptual view, new breed modelling tools provide the means to record the attributes of the concepts in our model. The benefit of recording characteristics like planned delivery date, forecast delivery date, project manager, budget and expenditure is you can start to extract information about the model that can help people do their work.

Domains of knowledge

The thing that distinguishes the new breed of business modelling tools from the current crop of project management and other business tools is these new tools can model across many domains of knowledge. What that means is we can join them together to multiply the amount and quality of information available.

You can look from the perspective of a project to find out what IT systems will be affected by your project and who might need to be trained in some new legislation or organisational policy. Also, you see which organisational change initiatives will affect you and which new regulatory or compliance obligations you have to meet.

The observer effect

The observer effect argues that if you measure something you invariably change the quantity you are trying to measure from its original value. For instance, measuring a project by producing reports about it changes the project’s work rate. There is a certain amount of meta information that is beneficial to a project for choreography and coordination, but if it is overdone it becomes burdensome without adding value to the project, even if there are some benefits to a broader program.

These new business modelling tools provide the means to capture the concepts and relationships and share them without imposing an unnecessary burden on the project. They provide a framework for low impact reporting of exactly what is important to the key stakeholders.

Contributing to the big picture

Most business improvement methods include the concept of feedback and measurement to maintain and improve the things you do. Today’s new modelling tools are no different.

Web 2.0 technology allows us to plug into the audience of our compelling, cross-domain, coherent and consistent models. By doing so these tools turn what is often a print-and-forget approach to management into a rich and enduring conversation using collaboration features that keeps the models alive and kicking.

If you add all that up it can seem like quite a bold claim being made on behalf of business modelling tools. But consider this, relatively simple molecules combine under the right circumstances with others to form DNA and ultimately you and me. Similarly, the simple concepts in a business model combine to form knowledge domains and then a complex model of a functioning project or business.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a senior consultant for Holocentric and specialises in business architecture, program and project management as well as problem framing to contribute to the effective and efficient use of people, processes and technology. Through his role, he helps organisations to recognise and adapt to changing business needs with a focus on process and information technology.
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