Business Function

The business function is a key concept in this semantic framework.  The concept of business function can be thought of as a virtual or idealized organization within the business, as shown in Figure 5.  It is true that organizations are established to perform specialized functions in the business.  It is also true, however, that frequent reorganization within any business is a recognized fact of life.  So functions are idealized conceptual structures that are stable over time and in the face of managerial reorganization whims.  As stable concepts, functions provide a point of commonality in describing different businesses that otherwise exhibit significant variation.

Functions as we are defining them here provide definition to role-players in the business.  This definition is demonstrated by the way the accounting function defines the accountant, the management function defines the manager, the underwriting function defines the underwriter.  Business functions may be concentrated and housed in specific business locations.  Specific functionality is invoked as required during the course of business behavior. They are one of the main points of recursive definition, because high-level business functions are easily seen to be composed of multiple more granular levels of functionality.

From an architectural point of view we are interested in functions because they provide us with a key partitioning opportunity.  If functionality is partitioned in a meaningful way, it can stand the test of time and the vagaries of political reorganization.   This is also the point where we can talk about software performing or supporting specific aspects of the business, independently of how any business is organized at any point in time.

Figure 5

Function definitions are not completely deterministic, which is the source of a long-standing criticism of functional decomposition as a technique. There is an element of subjectivity, based on the viewpoint and the principles being applied in the partitioning of the domain according to functions.  For this reason it is important to be as explicit as possible about the principles that are used to create the particular partitioning scheme.  The principles used here include:  The functions defined should be as independent as possible from existing or typical organization structures.  They should together constitute a set of functions that are typically required for any living[7], or viable system[8].  Since we are focusing on the information system aspects of the business system, they should constitute a complete set of functions that could give rise to a cognitive view of the business system[9].

Figure 6 below is one example that is provided for purposes of illustrating how a completely generic set of functions can be constructed that follow the principles noted above.  There are several information processing functions, abstracted from a combination of a living systems model, the Viable Systems Model, and a cognitive architecture.  They are unlikely to be mistaken for any existing or traditional organization chart.  Each one is a socio-technological subsystem in its own right, potentially containing both human beings and computing technology.

Figure 6

The points below define each of these business functions, starting with the most primitive ones that are equivalent to simple patterns of neurons and synaptic matrices, similar to the simple cognitive agents of Marvin Minsky’s[10] “society of mind”.  From these simple functions, progressively higher-level and more complex domains emerge.

  • The perceiver is a sensing mechanism, relying on both human and machine capabilities.  Computers support human perception via user interfaces.  Machines maintain direct environmental perception via probes physical sensing (temperature, etc.) and chemical probes.  The perceiver senses the occurrence of activity that is of interest to the business (such as a request to place an order, or the arrival of a shipment). It recognizes the existence and identity of some entity of interest to the business (such as customer Doris Smith).
  • The transmitter moves information within the business and between the business and external entities.  It requires a medium such as air waves, wires, or paper to move information from one location to another. It transforms information from one form (language or protocol) to another, and amplifies and filters information as required.
  • The expresser provides the means of conveying information to entities inside and outside the business in a form that is accessible to them.
  • The memory maintainer is the highly distributed function of maintaining the business's stored memory. It stores the values of information in various forms of business memory, including time-stamped records and groups of records in the databases of the business, as well as scenarios and anecdotal memories of employees. It keeps memories of agreements, rules, roles, etc.  It provides the ability to compare information in stored memory with external conditions or other information, so as to maintain the quality of information used in business decisions.
  • The locator provides the ability for the organization to locate physical entities in three-dimensional space or logical entities in arbitrary, cognitive space.
  • The producer performs the fundamental product and services production work of the business.  It accepts assignments for work to perform and reports on results of work completed and in progress.  It moves physical resources, i.e. solids, liquids and gasses, creates parts and components from raw materials, creates larger units from previously existing components, and acts on numeric data from counts, measurements, and accessed from memory.
  • The resource maintainer has the responsibility of assuring that the organization is supplied appropriately.  It acquires and allocates resources, determines the value of required resources, rejects inadequate resources. It compensates suppliers of resources, and keeps track of the level and state of resources.
  • The business relationship maintainer cares for the relationship between the business and the key role-players, including customers, suppliers, regulators, partners, agents, broader community stakeholders, internal organizations, and employees).  It negotiates deals and performs transactions such as selling and delivering goods and services, billing customers, collecting payment due, ordering goods and services from suppliers, and paying suppliers.  It provides the ability to broadcast a message to a more or less inclusive audience within or external to the business.  It also provides the ability to reproduce business configurations.
  • The arbiter provides business norms of behavior - "how we do things around here".  It codifies specific rules of business behavior, defines roles, accepts rule definitions from external sources, such as laws and regulations, and rewards behavior that conforms to business norms, while punishing behavior that does not.
  • The commander is responsible for the accomplishment of goals created by the direction setter.  It assigns these goals to the producer as bottom-line, operational goals.  It creates specific work assignments for business units and watches over activities in progress.
  • The direction setter forms purposes, or intentions to pursue opportunities and/or avoid risk.  It recognizes large and small opportunities, from individual sales potential to whole new marketplaces.  It formulates new types of goods or services that will be provided by the business within its marketplace.