The power of the feedback loop

I watched the latest video blog from Amanda Congdon, formerly of Rocketboom, now with ABC News. In this video, Amanda is in a dairy farm in Vermont. What makes this dairy farm unique is that it is entirely cow powered. They harvest the by-products of the cows, extract the methane gas, which powers a turbine that generates enough electricity for the farm with plenty leftover. The remnants of the by-products are separated into liquid by-products and solid by-products. The liquid by-products go to a lagoon, the solid by-products wind up becoming bedding for the cows. I found it very cool.

So here’s the analogy to SOA. You may find it a bit of a stretch, but everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Personally, I like to look for parallels in the real world to how our IT systems should behave. In the past world of dairy farming, I’m sure there was a time where the farmer was concerned with one thing: producing milk. Are there costs associated with it? Sure. Are there by-products? Absolutely. But in the end, the farmers really just cared about producing and selling milk. Now, the practice has progressed to where the system is a linear system with caw feed at the beginning and milk at the end, it is a closed-loop environment where even the by-products are turned around and leveraged in the process. Where are we at with IT systems today? I’d argue that most enterprises are still in the linear mode of thinking. You could even argue that it goes beyond IT, and into the business thinking, but being an IT guy, I’ll limit my assumptions there. IT produces solutions, and then forgets about them unless a user complains or some alarm goes off. If an organization takes on SOA, but still operates with this mentality, the only thing that has changed is that they are producing services instead of applications.

If an IT organization (and even the business) wants to mature and continue to wisely invest its IT dollars, the thinking has to stop being linear and start focusing on continued improvement. When a service goes into production, monitoring needs to go beyond just whether or not the service is available or not. Metrics (by-products) must be extracted from the process, and incorporated back into the planning process to continually improve the performance and behavior of IT systems. While it may begin with more operational metrics such as response time, there’s no reason that it can’t begin to involve business metrics and business events. These business events and metrics are processed by our analytics engines (business intelligence) and cause incorporated back into the IT systems themselves. Sometimes it may be a manual process where future improvements are justified through the analysis of usage metrics, other times it may be more automated where resources are automatically provisioning according to external factors that have been shown to increase demand. In any case, the IT operating model needs to be a loop, rather than a line. This isn’t anything new, as the concept of continual business improvement has been around for a long time. The thing that’s new is that it needs to be in the mindset of all of IT, all the way down to the developer writing the next service. While I’m sure those cows in Vermont don’t know that their manure is being used to keep their living space nice and cozy, the IT worker does need to know that by exposing metrics, whether IT centric or business centric, is a key to creating a feedback loop for continual improvement to the IT systems.

5 Responses to “The power of the feedback loop”

  • Sustainable SOA and closed-loop thinking…

    Todd Biske of Momentum has a great blog on SOA and EA, and one of his recent posts chimed particularly with something we’ve been talking about for quite a while now – sustainability. SOA is only possible when you consider the whole lifecycle of servi….

  • hi todd, a friend just pointed me to your post. i’d tell you who, but I don’t want you getting a big head :)

    her note, and your post, made me think of something i recently read in an MIT Sloan Review Article: In Search of the Next “Killer App” – http://sloanreview.mit.edu/smr/issue/2005/summer/15/

    “If killer apps will indeed emerge in nonobvious ways, the process can only be enhanced if applications are deployed in a context that provides more information than is actually needed for the application. This will create opportunities to discover more important uses for the app than were originally intended…

    It may soon no longer be possible for even gifted visionaries to imagine the next killer app. Extrapolation of the present will follow lines less straight and more recombinant than can be deciphered. In that case, we will need processes and technologies that will allow us to intelligently stumble upon the future.”

    nice post. one of many. -brenda

  • Todd:

    Thanks for the comments Brenda! Those quotes are great, and should be best practice for anyone who considers themselves a visionary. Even Steve Jobs got fired from Apple once. Being a visionary is an extremely difficult task. While it may be easy to gain notoriety when you hit a home run on something, you’ll be better off in the long run if you can establish a framework for collecting input for the next big thing. I’ll have to remember the term “intelligently stumble” for future conversations.

  • […] While I’m on the subjects of podcasts, another good listen was this presentation from Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo, on Innovation Through Design Thinking which was presented at the AdaptivePath conference. One of the great comments he made was how innovators take in everything from the environment around them to get new ideas. This hit home, because that’s one of the ways I go about writing this blog. I simply take in all the information around me, and sometimes things click. A great example of this was my blog on the power of feedback loop which came to mind after watching a video on a cow-powered dairy farm. If you consider yourself an innovative thinker, give it a listen. […]

  • […] The Power of the Feedback Loop: This post from January 5, 2007 was one of my favorites. I think it’s the first time that a cow-powered dairy farm was compared to enterprise IT. […]

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