Dr. Frank Schütz
Monday July 7th, 2008

What’s the use of – concepts?

With this contribution I would like to start a series of essays addressing (and thereby putting question marks behind) routines that – for whatever reasons – have become matters of course in everyday life.
Today, let me talk about “concepts”.
I find it remarkable what efforts are regularly made in the service of “concepts”, although, for instance in the IT world, everybody by now agrees that the time for drawing up a concept comprises between 50% and 100% of the actual implementation. (Which, by the way, is not only true for the IT world: Let me just remind you of the money spent on concepts and studies in the field of building projects).
Before going any further, let me define what I mean if I use the term “concept” in this essay.
First and foremost, a concept is a document in which the author writes down certain requirements for future adaptation. Mostly, the persons who are later supposed to apply the concept are not those who have created it. For the time being, let these initial comments suffice.
Assuming that these documents are just as costly as the actual implementation, please allow me to ask: What is their benefit?
Or more aggressively put: Why should I come up with such documents at all?
Without the extra effort it takes to create those documents, I would still have enough money for an entire abortive attempt in the implementation! Taking into consideration that the average learning progress during an abortive attempt is pretty high, it can be assumed that the second implementation will mostly be a success. Besides, looking at the time you normally spend working out concepts, a “concept free” procedure might very well to prove more efficient in terms of work hours, as well.
As a matter of principle, a concept is usually written by experts. After all, we want the result to look “professional”. Like often in life, the prophet is not heard in his home country, which means that external experts are hired for producing or at least playing a major part in the development of a concept.
Maybe I am being naive, but in my personal opinion, the employees working alongside each other in one company know most about each others work or field of expertise. Of course, it is always advisable to look beyond one’s restricted horizon, which is why I would recommend that for a concept development external professionals should indeed be consulted as to ideas and procedures. The actual concept paper, however, should be written exclusively by the employees of the company who are later supposed to apply it. Afterwards, the externals should do the proof-reading, thereby making sure that the employees actually understand the document which describes the concept. The knowledge remains in the company.
Which leads right back to one of the main aims of a concept: communication between the various roles (e.g. architect, developer, evaluator). If the concept has been developed externally, then the responsible party might no longer be available.
Again, let me point out that I consider the fact that a concept is meant for communication is paramount in this discussion. All communication deficits causing misunderstandings minimize the value of a concept to a huge extent.
Have you ever heard the following questions being asked by the person who was given an assignment?

  • “What do you need the concept for?”
  • “How do you want to further re-use the concept ?”

If so: congratulations!
Did you have an appropriate answer at your fingertips?
Have your answers been taken into consideration during the development phase?
Usually, a concept is used “universally”. As a general rule, the document is generated as “reading material”, often in word format, which means that it cannot be read by machines. Let us compare this with construction plans in machine engineering: Rather than using blueprints that are handed on, we nowadays use CAD files which are directly processed in modern processing centers. The facilities for quality control (measuring stations) are also often directly interpreted by these files.
So when does a concept actually guarantee additional value and thereby consolidate the investment?
The following check list has been started by me with the explicit hope of motivating you, dear reader, for comments. With your co-operation, we might eventually end up a complete and useful check list!
Check list for dealing with a concept:

  • Have I been asked how I wish to re-use the concept later?
  • Is the concept machine readable in its current version?
  • Does the concept follow a model (meta model)?
  • Does the concept provide more than two possible applications and have those been adapted to the needs of future users (e.g. architecture, design, implementation, evaluation, communication with experts)?
  • Can the concept be iteratively extended (refined)?

If your answer to any of these questions is negative, then maybe you want to reconsider about really wanting/needing that concept…

Dr. Frank Schütz
Sunday April 27th, 2008

(Deutsch) Anstand (von Dr. Frank Schütz)

Sorry, this entry is only available in German.