Unit Oriented Architecture

Unit Orientation

In the context of UOA, a unit is a social system that executes digital processes and interacts with other systems by exchanging digital information via formal digital boundaries.

When talking about a unit, we typically mean an organization, such as a business, non-profit, or a government agency, or a semi-independent part of an organization that has a formal digital boundary. A team without a boundary is not considered to be a unit. Other social systems [e.g. families], however, can also be implemented as units.

Systems thinking is a discipline of interpreting complex things as a whole rather than as a set of individual components. In systems science, a system is defined as a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole. A useful classification of systems based on the behavior of the whole and the contained elements was proposed by Russell L Ackoff.

  • In deterministic systems neither the whole nor the parts are purposeful. These systems contain only deterministic components. Examples of deterministic systems include various engines, mechanisms, and industrial devices, as well as the living organisms and organs, those that cannot define their purpose(s) by making a choice.
  • In animated systems the whole is purposeful, while the parts are not. Animated systems also contain only deterministic components. They are exemplified by animals and human beings.
  • In social systems the whole and some parts are purposeful. Social systems may include deterministic, animated, and social components. There are a variety of types of social systems, including families, communities, nations, business and non-profit organizations, sports teams, and military forces.
  • In ecological systems, some parts are purposeful but the whole is not. The Universe is an example of an ecological system that has no purpose of its own, but contains deterministic, animate, social, and ecological components.

Since the beginning of human civilization, technologists have been finding ways to not only support human activities, but also support social systems themselves. The technologies that were able to holistically support social systems stand out from other technologies, because of their high impact and widespread adoption. High quality, well-equipped, high-tonnage ships predetermined the success of Spain and Portugal in the exploration and colonization of the Americas during "The Age of Discovery." Battle tanks and fighter jets were a decisive factor in the outcome of World War II. A factory equipped by conveyor assembly lines became the most profound business phenomenon of the 20th century. A factory equipped by conveyor assembly lines became the most profound business phenomenon of the 20th century.

Table 2.1. Unit oriented technologies
Social System Purpose Unit Support
Family Living (multi-purpose) House/Apartment
Travel Cars, yachts, private jets
Government Education and research Libraries
Exploration and colonization Spacecrafts, fleets, ships
Health Hospitals, public sports centers, and swimming pools
Legislative, executive, and judicial Presidential and parliament buildings, courts
Transportation Buses, trams, trains, rapid transit, ferries
Business Entertainment Cinemas and theaters
Food and drinks Restaurants, pubs, coffee shops
Health Fitness centers
Goods manufacturing Industrial buildings and facilities
Lodging Hotels, motels, hostels
Shopping Malls, supermarkets, boutiques
Transportation Aircrafts, trains, cruise ships
Military Ground combat Combat vehicles (e.g tanks)
Air combat Fighter and attack aircrafts, bombers
Sea combat Warships, submarines, aircraft carriers
Defense Fortifications (forts, castles)

Effective unit oriented technologies have several key characteristics in common:

  • Boundaries. A strong, secure and aesthetically pleasing perimeter not only protects a social system from environmental stress, but also enables its interactions with the environment.
  • Operations. Multi-functional equipment enables personnel to achieve various operational goals.
  • Composability. Social units can easily be composed into higher-level complex modules and easily removed from them.

Composability vs. Reusability

To better understand composability and reusability, it's helpful to consider two well-known tools: a screwdriver () and a driver bit ().

A screwdriver is a highly reusable tool and can be used by people of all ages, from elementary school to seniors, but it cannot be composed into any machine or device. A driver bit, on the other hand, is a highly composable element as it can be either inserted into a screwdriver handle and be used by a human or composed into a machine.

The IT industry's excessive focus on reusability and inattentiveness to composability is the number one factor in the lack of success in the development of digital business technologies. To begin with, standards and protocols should be developed that enable effective composition of human task interfaces into business processes. To achieve this, human interfaces must receive the same treatment from the industry as system interfaces:

  • Human interfaces must be able to both accept input parameters and return output parameters.
  • Human interfaces must be modular and fine-grained. Each interface within an application that helps a user achieve a specific and atomic goal must have a unique address (URI).
  • Clear standards must exist for all composition patterns described in Table 2.2.
Table 2.2. Composition patterns for human task interfaces
Composition pattern
One role, one actor Application
Multiple roles, one actor Portal
Multiple roles, multiple actors Business process

Information Technology and Unit Orientation

IT has overridden the meaning of the word system as it was defined in Systems Thinking. We no longer see an organization or an organizational unit as a social system that needs information support. Instead, what we see is a business that uses information systems. We hear that business and IT organizations should be aligned, however, nobody knows what exactly that means.

Presently, IT has been successfully delivering both digital tools—some of which are exceptional—and suites of tools to enterprises. The vast majority of software suites (e.g. ERP) are typically monumental, non-modular collections of computer programs that are often made by megavendors. They don't align with the structure of an organization and come with an elephant-sized footprint on the organization's infrastructure. Often only 5% of the suite's functionality is used, but the organization has to embrace the total cost of ownership of the behemoth.

Enterprises have been waiting for vendors to decompose the behemoths into specialized units with well-defined operations and interfaces. Those should be priced and purchased independently. Once a unit has been deployed and composed into the organization's infrastructure with the minimal required footprint, an organizational unit should be able to immediately begin operations and interactions. Enterprises need to be able to update unit software or replace it with a product from another vendor quickly and without interruption of their business.

Key Points

UOA creates digital constructs that provide interactional and operational support to organizational units. An organizational unit is a social system, which represents a social technology phenomenon programmed to some purpose(s).

UOA views the organization as an implementation of the Composite design pattern with every node treated either as a Composite (control unit) or a Leaf (functional unit).

Unit software must be as comfortable to an organizational unit as a house is to a family, a space station to an astronaut crew, or a battle tank to a fighting crew.

Each unit must have a formal [software] boundary, which represents a contract between the unit and other entities inside and outside of the organization.

Each unit runs its own operations implemented as executable business processes. Every process in the organization is owned by exactly one unit. A unit might engage another unit or organization to perform a task within the context of the process it owns.

UOA places a special emphasis on control units, which today often consist of just one or a few people, have inadequate information support, and, therefore, have become the weakest links in modern organizations.

UOA uses Systems Thinking for defining the problem, Organization Design for configuring both an enterprise and a composite unit, SOA for constructing unit boundaries, EDA for inter-unit communication, BPM for defining unit operations, and Business Rules for governance.

Further Insights