01 February 2020

Application Architecture: Concept Documents (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

Software Engineering

A concept document (simply a concept) is a document that describes at high level the set of necessary steps and their implications in order to achieve a desired result, typically making the object of a project. In other words, it describes how something can be done or achieved, respectively how a problem can be solved.

The GoodThe main aim of the document is to give all the important aspects and to assure that the idea is worthy of consideration, that the steps considered provide a good basis for further work, respectively to provide a good understanding for the various parties involved, Therefore, concepts are used as a basis for the sign-off, respectively for the implementation of software and hardware solutions.

 A concept provides information about the context, design, architecture, security, usage, purpose and/or objectives of the future solution together with the set of assumptions, constraints and implications. A concept is not necessarily a recipe because it attempts providing a solution for a given problem or situation that needs a solution. Even if it bears many similarities in content and structure a concept it also not a strategy, because the strategy offers an interpretation of the problem, and also not a business case, because the later focuses mainly on the financial aspects.

A concept proves thus to be a good basis for implementing the described solution, being often an important enabler. On the other side, a written concept is not always necessary, even if conceptualization must exist in implementers’ head.

The Bad: From these considerations projects often consider the elaboration of a concept before further work can be attempted. To write such a document is needed to understand the problem/situation and be capable of sketching a solution in which the various steps or components fit together as the pieces of a puzzle. The problem is that the more complex the problem to be solved, the fuzzier the view and understanding of the various pieces becomes, respectively, the more challenging it becomes to fit the pieces together. In certain situations, it becomes almost impossible for a single person to understand and handle all the pieces. Solving the puzzle becomes a collective approach where the complexity is broken in manageable parts in the detriment of other aspects.

Writing a concept is a time-consuming task. The more accuracy and details are needed, the longer it takes to write and review the document, time that’s usually stolen from other project phases, especially when the phases are considered as sequential. It takes about 20% from the total effort needed to write a ‘perfect’ concept for writing a concept that covers only 80% of the facts, while 80% from the effort to consider the remaining 20% of the facts as the later involve multiple iterations. In extremis, aiming for perfection will make one start the implementation late or not start at all. It’s a not understandable pedantry with an important impact on projects'
 timeline and quality in the hope of a quality increase, which is sometimes even illusory.

The Ugly: The concept-based approach is brought to extreme in ERP implementations where for each process or business area is needed to write a concept, which often carries fancy names – solution design document, technical design document, business process document, etc. Independently how it is called, the purpose is to describe how the solution is implemented. The problem is that the conceptualization phase tends to take much longer than planned given the dependencies between the various business area in terms of functionality and activities. The complexity can become overwhelming, with an important impact on project’s budget, time and quality.

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