The Alignment Problem

Roel Wieringa (

The GRAAL project (

University of Twente, the Netherlands

14 November 2004


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Three worlds

ICT architects must keep three worlds aligned, namely the physical, social and software world.


The physical world is the world of computers, cables, printers, wireless access points, and in general anything that can be described using the basic measuring units of physics, Meters, Kilograms, Seconds, and Amperes. Software engineers often forget that the world of engineering is physical. Bridges, roads, buildings, steam engines, chemical processes, electrical networks, water supply systems, automobiles, airplanes, rockets, wind turbines, and all other machines and materials that engineers deal with are physical.


The social world consists of roles people play, organizations, departmenrs, money, responsibilities, rights, delegation, business processes, and in general the processes and structures defined by human institutions. Organization designers deal with this world..


The software world consists of software applications, information systems, office software, ERP systems, workflow management systems, database management systems, middleware, operating systems, assembly language programs and even micropprograms running on computers. Software by nature consists of symbols, and the software world is part of the symbol world, that also includes text and diagrams on paper, traffic sigms, advertisements, and in general any physical entity that has been given a meaning by people. Characteristic of the symbol world, and therefore of the software world, is that the there is a meaning convention that is not given by the physics of the entity. Physicists will never discover the meaning of a text by investigating the physical properties of the paper and ink with which the text is written. The meaning convention is a social convention agreed upon by the people using the text. The symbols appearing on a screen, the signals sent by a computer to peripheral devices, are physical phenomena for which people defined a meaning by convention.


Architects play a role in aligning the three worlds to each other.

  1. An architect of buildings analyzes needs and desires in the social world and designs a physical structure that caters for those needs.
  2. An architect of software analyzes needs and desires in the social world and designs a software solution that caters for those needs.
  3. An implementation designers analyzes the requirements of software and maps this to available hardware.

All. three alignment relationships go both ways. Buildings adapt themselves to the needs of people (they are redesigned and renovated), and people adapt themselves to the properties of the buildings. Software adapts itself to the needs of people (they evolve) and people adapt themselves to the properties of software. And gardware adapts itself to the requirements of the softyware that runs on it (hardware is acquired so that the software continues to be able to run on it) and software adapts to the properties of the available hardware.


  1. J.C. Henderson and N. Venkatraman. ``Strategic alignment: leveraging information technology for transforming operations''. IBM Systems Journal, 32(1):416, 1993.
  2. R.J. Wieringa, H.M. Blanken, M.M. Fokkinga, and P.W.P.J. Grefen. ``Aligning application architecture to the business context.'' In Conference on Advanced Information System Engineering (CAiSE 03), pages 209225. Springer, 2003. LNCS 2681.
  3. R.J. Wieringa, P.A.T. van Eck, D. Krukkert. ``Architecture Alignment''. To be published, ArchiMate.