Understanding the Natural System


- Systems always find a way to produce information to support the needs of the enterprise.

Every now and then I encounter a programmer who adamantly contends you cannot have an information system without some form of computer support. Actually, we've had such systems well before the advent of the computer. As we jokingly contend, the first on-line, real-time, interactive, data base system was double-entry bookkeeping which was developed by the merchants of Venice in 1200 A.D. It may have been a manual system, but it worked rather effectively, and still does. Suggesting you can't have a system without a computer reveals the person's naivety. Admittedly, computers can now be found throughout the corporate world, be it large corporations or small businesses, but systems transcend the use of the computer.

Information systems are born the moment a company or organization goes into business. They may lack automation and are not the most sophisticated, but they exist nevertheless. The system may not be well organized as a Systems Analyst may design it, but it is what is called a "Natural System" which is born out of necessity by people charged with performing the work. Since information is consumed by people, they inevitably invent systems to produce information to support business needs. Not surprising, a Natural System lacks documentation and, in all likelihood data redundancy is introduced, as well as redundant work flows. Nonetheless, a system inevitably takes shape the same way water runs down a mountain and forms into streams with all of its twists and turns.

I have seen this phenomenon occurring recently in a new media start-up with some rather bold ambitions. Over the last few months they have assembled a team of rather smart and ambitious people. Even though they lack a systems department (or even an I.T. department), they have been forced to create all of the systems themselves. Is it perfect? Hardly, but they are persevering and assembling the information to make the company a success. They either do so, or the company will perish before it ever gets off the ground.

If the company survives, it will inevitably blossom into a big business requiring full-time systems analysts, programmers, data base personnel, and other technicians. Undoubtedly, these people will be faced with untangling the Natural Systems and organizing them into something more efficient and effective which will be no small task as such systems normally resemble a plate of spaghetti rather than anything structured.

No Virginia, information systems have been with us literally for centuries. The computer is simply the latest twist. Just remember, even in the absence of Systems Analysts, systems always find a way to deliver information. It is what Les Matthies, the legendary Dean of Systems, called, "The Natural System." Such systems may be quick and dirty solutions that are wasteful. The remarkable thing about them is simple; they work!

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at [email protected]

Copyright © 2013 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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Tony Markos posted on Thursday, April 25, 2013 7:50 AM

You said: "but systems transcend the use of the computer."

This is so very true! Unfortunately alot of us BA's suffer from what I call "Mystification Via the Mechanism". That is, if a clerk, with pencil and paper, manually calculates the sales tax on beer, it is a "business requirement". But, if a computer performs the calculation - then some sort of techie mystification occurs and we now have a "functional requirement".

This is no small matter. I deal with larger scale integration efforts. To handle the complexity of such, I need to take as logicical, straight forward approach as possible. And any forced, artifical partitioning such as "people vs computer" partitioning really retards integration efforts.
Tim Bryce posted on Thursday, April 25, 2013 8:31 AM
Thanks for your note and I appreciate your dilemma, but we're back to a discussion on what "requirements" mean. I do not agree with what you refer to as a "business requirement".
I believe in the concept of "stepwise refinement", see:

Here are some other articles which reflect my position on "information requirements" -


Hope you find this interesting.

All the Best,
Tim Bryce
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