Monday, March 12, 2012

Next Stop: Clarity

Transcendentalism can be outgrown. Yet, right after junior literature class extols the virtues of nature and before it shifts to boring readers with the pastoral poets, American college kids begin to romance a summer traveling through Europe.
Not to be confused with McCandlessian adventures, Europe offers a higher level of enlightenment than domestic countryside. And better shopping. It therefore requires several weeks of hostels, backpacking, journaling, and collecting oddities like McDonald’s ash trays.
My friend Matthew ended up in Austria on one such journey and boarded a train in Vienna seeking an authentic Austrian experience. Unable to make sense of the map, Matt asked assistance from a friendly Viennese youth and was directed outbound, toward Salzburg, the destination lingering at the end of a long orange line.
Map It Out
Many train map designs derive from London’s Underground: its large colored tubes snake from one side to the other intersected by bloated circles demarcating stations. The Washington, D.C. Metro map is similar. Its orange line carried us from Vienna, Virginia into the heart of the capital for parades and museum tours when I was a child. I had often heard the map’s cities on traffic reports but didn’t really know where they were: Franconia, Ballston, Dupont Circle, Clarendon.
Our CIO has been in Japan recently and is particularly fond of the subway map. He suggested such a diagram could provide clarity to the end-to-end nature of the processes our enterprise resource planning (ERP) system currently runs.
Out of necessity a metro map must be very clear to see, require little to no instruction to read, and be translatable into any language. Its concept is at once complex: how to leave one place and arrive some other place intentionally; and simple: travel without confusion.
This weekend I considered the subway map as an alternative to flow charts for process documentation. How can we map the ERP software we maintain and develop? What purpose would such a map fulfill? What kind of clarity would it provide?
Seek Authenticity
In Austria, Matt and his companion rode for hours awaiting the stop their guide had suggested. All those stops, all those miles, watching the city, then the suburbs, then the countryside fly by in the windows.
Given the intersections where some paths diverge and others take up a parallel trajectory, it seems the subway map is a fitting metaphor for quite a few systems.
Friendship, education, career, even soap opera and miniseries plots have the divergent/convergent multi-laned structure of a subway system.  Additionally, the very basic idea of moving people from place to place can very easily metaphor the spread of ideas, the progression or regression of technology, the exchange and alteration of values or priorities.
Even the various evolutions and manifestations of English literature including the Transcendentalists, Romantics, Industrialists, and Realists, could be displayed as colorful trajectories with intersections and divergences. Don’t tell my Russian history professor, but I finally understand the train metaphor in Anna Karenina.
Make It Applicable
After a weekend ruminating on it, I began to wonder why the subway map was not more frequently employed to display business models. But like most metaphors, it is adequate but not quite precise enough. The one-way nature of business transactions exploits the subway map’s limited use. There are few processes that can or should be reversed in business. What use would a train be that only ran in one direction?
Yet, like the platform and station structures, an ERP will repurpose system functionality. For that reason, the subway map could be used to show overlaps and available resources. It might also expose process truncations and gaps.
Approaching Salzburg, Matthew had begun to tire of the seemingly interminable ride into the countryside. The train conductor announced the final stop, their destination, at last! The two American travelers walked the distance they had been directed and stared at the destination.
Walmart.

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