The power of crow’s feet

or “How information is organized… in organizations”


It’s Saturday Morning in Cape Town and I’ve just spent an hour talking about how a non-profit is organized. I thought I was getting into a technical discussion—I’ve been doing system architecture discussions for years—but what we ended up talking about was how this NGO thinks.

This engagement is largely about mapping an already existing “people & paper” based system to technology. Vera Solutions will build a system for this client using Open Data Kit for field data collection and Salesforce.com for the management “back-end”. Because we’re not explicitly being asked to help re-design processes at this organization, the client is “telling us how things are”, then expecting us to create a relational database model that facilitates business-as-usual, only in a more efficient, digital way. Seems reasonable.

This organization runs multiple programs focusing on a handful of strategic objectives. They coordinate various activities in their target communities and report on those activities against numerous (sometimes overlapping) indicators. Sound familiar? As we get to the 3rd explanation of these programs, and the 11th iteration of the system schema, it hits me…

Drawing a “relational object model” sounds technical, but it’s actually an exercise in clear communication… and everyone can benefit from it.

When we—human beings—wrestle with complex problems (like managing lots of programs, other humans, community stakeholders, etc.) we have the capacity to trick ourselves into thinking that we have wrapped our heads around a system (for clinic registration, for after-school education, etc.) when, in fact, we’re engaging in mental hand-waving and are simply ‘papering-over’ sections which are secretly not just complicated, but totally incongruous with other parts of the system. We can make ourselves believe that our logic is sound because we want it to be sound, when in reality the organization might be held together by good people, not good, clear, defined processes. By learning a couple of key concepts, it’s possible for non-technical people to articulate their thoughts clearly using “boxes” and “crow’s feet” and see whether or not there is an underlying structure to their organization’s information.

By forcing yourself to reduce complex systems to sketches containing only two elements, you’ll be able to detect important conflicts and confusions in how you think about your organization that you might otherwise miss.

If you can’t diagram the information structure in your organization using boxes and crow’s feet, it’s a smell that something isn’t quite right (Or at least that something isn’t easily scalable… more on this later!)

I’m going to follow up on this article with another next week that dives deeper into the nuance of this type of “relational object model”, but for now I’ll show you the tools in the toolbox and then wrap up by waxing poetic on people, processes, and technology.

Boxes and crow’s feet

figure 1, a box

The box is my favorite. It represents an entity in your data system. Entities (like “teachers”) have attributes (like “names”, “phone numbers”, “dates of Birth”, “genders”, etc.) Some people like thinking of entities as simple forms. The “teacher registration form” will ask for the teacher’s name, phone number, gender, etc. These are the fields on your teacher entity. By submitting one of these forms, you’ll add a new teacher to your database. If you’re an Excel person, the attributes are columns in your “teacher table.”

figure 2, a crow’s foot

The crow’s foot is my second favorite. It’s used to show relationships between entities. We know that teachers are related to the sessions that they conduct. (And “session” might be another entity, with fields like “date”, “subject taught”, and “venue”, to name just a few.) The crow’s foot allows us to specify exactly how they are related. On that session entity, we’ll need to specify the name (or ID) of the teacher who led it. On the teacher entity, however, there won’t be a field to specify the name or ID of the session… because a single teacher can lead MANY sessions. This is a one-to-many relationship. The crow’s foot (that little three-pronged fella) denotes the many. One teacher can have many sessions. One session, however, can only have one teacher. See the diagram below.

figure 3, a relational object model

If we focus just on “teacher” and “session” and think back to MS Excel, we can envision a teacher table and a session table. Let’s put them on different sheets in the same workbook. On the teacher table, there is no column for “session”, but on the session table, there is a column for “teacher ID”. We’ve just established a one-to-many relationship.

Next time, we’ll talk about what’s going with the “attendance” entity above. It’s sometimes called a “junction object” or a “join table”, and it’s what allows MANY students to be related to MANY sessions. I’ll write more on this next time, but there is no magic going on, no technicalities here. The way that many students are related to many sessions is through this Real World Concept that we call “attendance.” Attendance is what happens when a student shows up at a session. It’s so important to get the language right in these discussions, and make sure that you’re talking about real-world concepts.

Relational object models with lots of confusing terms are not “technical”. They are “bad”.

Remember that as you start to put pen to paper. And allow yourselves time (and multiple drafts) to get the boxes and terminology right. Understanding relational object modelling is an incredibly powerful way to organize a company. As I said before, if you can’t model it with boxes and arrows, it’s a smell that something might not be conceptually sound.

A disclaimer and some thoughts on scaling:

Some organizations do amazing work without good conceptual systems. They rely on humans, instinct, improvisation, nouse, and other not-so-clearly-defined things. They might do really great work. They might get the job done. But they need to be well aware of their condition and face it head on. If you can’t systematize your program implementation processes, then you need to focus tremendous effort on finding and retaining the right people.

A friend once told me that “people are not scalable.” I couldn’t agree more, and defend my earlier stance that if you organization’s information structure can’t be defined with boxes and crow’s feet, it may be very hard for you to scale responsibly. However, if you can create a ruthlessly efficient, world-class “people operations” system (recruitment, training, management, compensation, HR, etc.) that ensures you’ve always got the right people to figure things out you might be better off than those operating a well defined assembly-line with interchangeable parts. Alas, the middle way is probably the best.

That’s all for now. More soon.

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