Stovepiping can lead to technical debt

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 01:18 pm

Stovepiping can lead to technical debt. Actual stovepipes are the tubes that vent exhaust from stoves. These tubes serve as a metaphor for the flow of information in “stovepiped” organizations. In stovepiped organizations, information can flow predominantly (or only) up or down along the parallel chains of command. But information can flow only rarely (or never) from a point in one chain of command across to some other chain of command [Waters 2010]. The stovepipe metaphor is imperfect, in the sense that in actual stovepipes, smoke and fumes rarely flow downwards. By contrast, in organizations, some information does flow down the chains of command. But the metaphor does clarify the problem of limited flow of information. Transferring whatever the organization learns in one metaphorical stovepipe into other metaphorical stovepipes is difficult.

Two forms of stovepiping

The stovepipes in a wood-burning stove in a farm museum
A wood-burning stove in a farm museum in Lower Bavaria (German: Niederbayern). Lower Bavaria is one of the seven administrative regions of Bavaria, Germany. The stovepipe, which is the black tube running upwards from the stove, channels smoke and fumes out of the kitchen into the chimney.
Stovepiping can occur in both organizational structures and in engineered systems. These two forms of stovepiping are intimately related, and both can lead to uncontrolled formation of new technical debt, or increased persistence of existing technical debt.

In organizational structures, stovepiping occurs when elements of different organizational units with similar capabilities act relatively independently. An example is the dispersal of some elements of the IT function out into IT’s customers. When independent organizations have similar technical needs, they’re at risk of generating new technical debt. The debt they generate results from independently implementing technological capabilities that duplicate each other.

Stovepiping occurs in engineering, for example, when the organization manages and maintains independently two distinct technological assets [McGovern 2003]. In that situation, distinct engineering efforts working on those assets might happen to solve the same problem, possibly in two different ways. Then each party might be either ignorant or possibly disparaging, of the other’s efforts.

How stovepiping relates to technical debt

In whichever way duplication of technological capability comes about, it can increase levels of technical debt. Alternatively, it can increase persistence of existing technical debt. These effects happen because the organization might need to execute future maintenance or enhancement efforts multiple times—once for each instance of the technical artifact. That exposes the organization to additional cost, additional load on its staff, and additional risk of creating defects and incurring liability. Compare this situation to one in which all units that need a particular asset share it. Duplication is expensive.

The problem is actually even more worrisome. First, suppose there exists a defect in one version of a technological artifact. The people who are aware of the defect might not realize that another version of the artifact exists. If that second version also has an analogous defect, its defect might go unrecognized for some time, with all the usual attendant negative consequences. Second, suppose there is a necessary extension of the artifact’s capabilities. The maintainers of one version might recognize the need for the extension and implement it. Meanwhile, the maintainers of other versions might not recognize the need for the extension. They might not take action until something bad happens or a possibly urgent need arises. It’s easy to conjure other unfavorable—and costly—scenarios.

Stovepiping in technological systems

In engineering more generally, stovepiping can occur internally in systems, even though only one business unit is involved, and even though the stovepiped artifacts serve purposes invisible to the world outside the system. This can occur whenever there is weak communication between the teams designing or maintaining the portions of the system that host the similar artifacts. For readers familiar with the Apollo XIII incident, the incompatibility of the two carbon dioxide scrubbers in the command module and the lunar excursion module serves as an example of the risks of technical stovepiping.

When distinct business units or functions operate their own engineering or IT organizations, there’s an elevated probability of duplicating technological assets. The same effect can occur when they depend on a shared engineering function but require similar work. This happens when the organizational structure or the timing of the work encourages separate engineering efforts. Engineering or IT functions operated separately under the control of distinct business units or functions can clearly produce duplicated capabilities. However, duplication can also occur when the engineering function is shared across distinct business units or functions. This happens when the actual people and teams performing the work differ for different efforts. And it can happen too when communication is weak between those teams, whether or not the efforts are conducted contemporaneously.

Last words

Because identifying these forms of technical debt after they appear is notoriously difficult, preventing their formation is preferable. Prevention is possible if the enterprise establishes mechanisms that facilitate consultation and sharing among elements of different, separately operated technology development or maintenance functions. In other words, the organization must “break” the stovepipes—no mean feat, politically speaking.

Another challenge, of course, is providing resources for such sharing mechanisms, because preventing technical debt is rarely recognized as a value generator. If it were so recognized, the resources would likely appear. Changes in cost accounting might make such recognition more likely.

References

[McGovern 2003] James McGovern, Scott W. Ambler, Michael E. Stevens, James Linn, Vikas Sharan, and Elias K. Jo. A Practical Guide to Enterprise Architecture, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall PTR, 2003.

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[Waters 2010] Donald Waters. Global Logistics: New Directions In Supply Chain Management, 6th Edition, London: Kogan Page Limited, 2010.

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