System Analogy: The Three Legged Stool

Systems are like a Three Legged Stool

For years, I have used the analogy that a system is like a three-legged stool. One leg is the hardware, software, and data; this is the leg most people associate with the word "system". The second leg is policies, procedures, and management support. And the third leg is trained, competent staff and users. If any of the legs are too short on a three-legged stool, it will be out of balance and fall. This is the same with a system.

Continuing with the analogy, even a balanced stool may be too short to support the goals you wish to reach. But you cannot merely lengthen a single leg to increase the overall height. It is important for institutions to address all three legs of this stool to make sure that the system is balanced and at the right height to meet your requirements. In my work, I look at all three legs - the system, the infrastructure, and the staff.

This may be seen graphically in the first two pictures below. The first shows the "legs" that deliver a reliable system with accurate data:

Stool Graphic

The key components of each "leg" of the stool are shown below: 

System Components

Based on my experience with more and more clients, I believe there is another dimension needed for discussing this analogy. Without the right leadership and direction to hold the legs of the stool firm, the whole stool may fall apart. I am still playing with this concept, but see how this added dimension strikes you.

Stool with bracing

The aspects of leadership and direction between each leg is described on the following graphic:

Leadership Components

Feel free to copy or print out the pictures above. I would appreciate attribution if you use the concept or the pictures in a presentation you make either inside or outside your institution. Thanks.

Reading books like "Why Things Bite Back - Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences" by Edward Tenner or "The Squandered Computer" by Paul Strassman one sees the importance of this analogy. Although Tenner and Strassman do not refer specifically to my analogy, they write about the huge amount of money spent of computers and technology contrasted against the low productivity increases that have resulted! Strassmann noted that in major corporate & government IT shops, there was no correlation between IT spending and either profitability or productivity. In his book it was noted that in 1996, of the over $1 trillion spent on IT, only about 2% went to training. Are you surprised? 

Wall Street Journal articles and special reports have also highlighted the importance of training in really getting benefits out of our dollars spent of computer technology. Don't just think that getting a new computer and/or new software solves all your problems. It often solves some but creates many new ones. Proceed with Caution.

Cheryl Currid in her book, "Computing Strategies for Reengineering your Organization", speaks of the same factors that I do using the categories of Technology, Business, and People, but refers to it as a "three-ring circus." I prefer my analogy, but her book is good too.

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Last updated June  2003