This was a tricky blog to get started – the topic opened so many doors to dense topics it was hard to get the sense of a thread to join them. So I went for a run instead and after the quiet reflection that such activity induces I had the beginning and the end … now all I need to do is navigate between them. I hope you can stay with me for the ride.
I first came across the idea of the ‘life cycle’ as a formal tool for analysis and design in the early eighties when I picked up managing the new DEC VAX computer system while working at the Royal Blind Society, and subsequently broadened my Master of Commerce degree studies at UNSW to encompass Information Systems Management (ISM).
I took to the concept immediately, firstly because I am something of a natural systems thinker, and secondly perhaps because of my engagement with biology as a subject at high school – it was my enthusiasm for social biology that drove my initial interest in studying sociology at university. In the early seventies sociology was a new kid on the block at NZ universities – in fact it wasn’t available to first year students when I commenced at Auckland, dictating an initial stint with Anthropology and Psychology instead. But I digress …
I explored the lifecycle topic quite extensively in an ISM essay from around 1986, which I unearthed in that front room filing cabinet. I noted:
A ‘System Lifecycle’ notion is often used to describe the development, planned or unplanned, of information systems based on computing tools. Although “there are many different methods for representing the lifecycle … all contain essentially the same components” (7, P.13) and these components can be viewed in a simple linear sequence. But when generalizing to the information systems activities of an organization or sizeable organizational unit, a more sophisticated understanding is necessary.
For organizations in the ‘real world’, the stability in simple linear models of change does not exist. A simple linear model would ignore the fundamental characteristic of information systems that they age and wear out like most other assets, and renewal must be part of the planning process. Therefore, as a first complication, we must accept “the complete life cycle of a system, from its initial conception to its ultimate disposal.”
An even broader sense of discontinuity to further complicate planning scenarios is pointed to by Buss when he suggests that “Complete uniformity across all IS projects is likely to be impossible because organizations will be at different stages in their use of … various technologies.”
I have chosen those paragraphs because they continue to ring true for the task of managing information technology today (the language and technology have changed, the challenges remain almost exactly the same! They also capture the essence of how the life cycle concept contributes to analysis and design – by adding the fundamental idea of renewal to what might otherwise be seen as linear processes. This then captures a more dynamic view of systems, accepts change, favours flexibility and explicitly accommodates feedback into design.
The life cycle idea is also closer to the general dynamic of social relationships and can have a powerful personal resonance, which can help bring design closer to people. This was exemplified for me as I wrote the words to celebrate my eldest sons’ marriage a few years ago, where I commented on the family pattern of ‘building up, letting go and welcoming in’ – a pattern that has been continued and confirmed by the most welcome birth of our first grandchild. I have appended the notes for that brief speech, which to my surprise was the subject of a number of favourable remarks, at the end of the blog (lightly edited to protect privacy).
I found the idea of a ‘life cycle’ to be useful well outside the narrow world of IT systems. For example I used it as a consultant in the late nineties to create a model of Neighbour Aid service delivery, identifying possible benchmark events for these Services. That model was built around the various activities and processes of groups of stakeholders (community management committee, service coordination, clients, and volunteers), reflecting what might be called their ‘life cycle’ in the organisation. The model then neatly provided a starting point to detail functions which Neighbour Aid services might usefully benchmark between themselves.
The concept then found applicability in my work as a consumer advocate at CHOICE in the noughties. In 2003 I advocated that a Customer Life Cycle perspective would provide a useful structure for a Single Telecommunication Consumer Protection Code. The code surfaced almost a decade later and rather than explicitly use that framework assembled various existing codes into chapters – thereby inevitably covering a number of customer lifecycle event but without that overarching logic.
I also used the idea to describe how advocacy worked, which found utility in the work of a consumer focus group convened by the Australian Communications Authority in 2004. It had the objective: “To improve the effectiveness of consumer input and influence to the regulation and governance of the communications industry.”
We gave ourselves the label Consumer Driven Communications and we established a powerful logic in drafting our work into the ‘Strategies for Better Representation’ Issues Paper by combining what we dubbed (and rather crudely illustrated) as the Representational Cycle with our version of the Regulatory Pyramid (a whole other discussion probably for further blog post sometime).
This produced a matrix of 36 topics which extensively covered the field of consumer engagement with the telecommunications industry and governance – a little too comprehensive for the appetites of some in the end perhaps. The group produced an extensive discussion document and then generated a final report with numerous recommendations, all of which pretty much disappeared under the tides of history, as the Communications Authority merged with the Broadcasting Authority to produce the ACMA in 2005. Digital archaeology on the project is difficult – Google will only unearth scattered, mostly cached results. Such is life, as many famous advocates have said.
Nevertheless, as I hope I have demonstrated, the ‘life cycle’ is powerful and persuasive tool – it doesn’t fit every situation, but when it does apply it can deliver coherence and insight – both useful for analysis and design.
There is a distinct sense today of technological acceleration, and certainly in the IT world we seem to be seeing ever shorter life cycles, as we move from products and services dependent on hardware to those defined by software, and now to offerings crafted from data analysis by machine learning and AI.
It certainly seems clear that the pace of change and the rate of innovation will not slow: as one group with a real-world interest in understanding technological change (the Office of the [US] Secretary of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office NeXTech project) suggested that “… in the period the team is actually supposed to be planning for, the strategic horizon of the next 25 years, we will see technologies literally one billion times more powerful than today.”
Some draw a conclusion relevant to the lifecycle of humanity itself, connect the current shape of change with the deep development of human language, technology and society. This line of thinking is illustrated by a reviewer’s summary of the thesis in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari:
For the first half of our existence we potter along unremarkably; then we undergo a series of revolutions. First, the “cognitive” revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The “scientific revolution” begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, “amortal” cyborgs, capable of living forever.
Perhaps this is, as the reviewer remarks, “exaggeration and sensationalism”: but maybe we are coming to the inflection point where we can contemplate the historic end of the ‘life cycle’ over the next couple of decades, at least as far as human society is concerned.
Do you agree?
Meanwhile on a more immediate & personal note, celebrating my son’s wedding I said:
I have often said that if I had known how great it was
to have kids, I would have started a lot earlier …
but of course then I wouldn’t have been able to
do it with my wife …
and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as
great or as much fun.
I have personally learnt heaps,
and grown a lot, from being a parent .
By and large I reckon I have got more out of the
parenting deal than my kids have
… so I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
As time has gone on, one of the things I have learned
is that the toughest job of parenting is not:
The missed sleep and 24/7 demands of the early years;
Nor the school concerts and soccer matches of the middle years;
Nor the taxi / linen / reserve banker services of later years.
No … those nurturing tasks are comparatively easy … because,
although they can be emotionally demanding
and sometimes physically draining,
you are in control.
I think the truly tough job of parenting is …
the letting go,
acknowledging you are no longer in control.
This was brought home to me when J***** set off on
his first long solo drive.
He was taking himself and his brother T*****
to a St John’s training camp in the Blue Mountains
… all I (we) could do was wave goodbye and then
trust that he (and T*****) would arrive in one piece.
However what we were trusting was not good luck –
we were trusting that J***** had learnt well
and that he would navigate safely and
independently to his destination.
And of course he did.
And he has been travelling well ever since, working hard,
making good choices and getting good results.
And today J***** is continuing his life’s journey
joining with J##### to build what will be the most
important asset they can possess between them
– a happy and productive partnership.
An old friend once remarked that the investment
he most valued was his marriage – something I have
always remembered –
I always say I have 3 super funds to maintain:
Firstly – my marriage;
Secondly – my fitness / health; and
Thirdly and only then – any actual super account dollars
– because without the first two,
money alone has little meaning or usefulness.
Growing value in a partnership is about
the opposite of letting go –
it means letting someone else in,
trusting, sharing and learning how to fit together.
What I have found to be quite miraculous about
creating a family is how that unit can grow
I remember that when we were expecting T*****
(two and a half years after J*****)
I expressed some concern to my wife that
I loved J***** so much
I wondered how could love
another child as much.
What I discovered was that the envelope of
family love extends easily and
T***** immediately had a huge place in our hearts.
So families are about welcoming in
as well as being about letting go,
While today marks for us a continuation
of letting J***** go,
we are also happy and proud
to welcome J##### to our family,
and to the extended family,
who over the last decades
have extended such a warm welcome
to me – one for which I am very grateful .
So, welcome J##### –
there is always room for one more.
We wish you and J***** all the best
on your journey together,
and as you craft your own pattern of:
letting go; and