Of Clocks and Clouds: The Right Support For Your Processes

In the May 2010 edition of Wired, Jonah Leher’s article got me thinking about philosopher Karl Popper and how his theory on Clocks and Clouds isn’t far off an approach I use when designing processes. Popper:

“..divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.”

Processes are of clocks and clouds too.

Clock processes are structured. They are repeatable and routine. To get the most out of your clock processes, efficiency is the name of the game. Automate these processes where possible, and where they can’t be automated, be sure not to expend your high value resources on them. To support the people doing these types of processes, they need clear and repeatable instructions, and they need their performance to be measured by throughput and accuracy (Step 1 + Step 2 = Goal.  Every time).

Cloud processes, on the other hand, are unstructured. They are less predictable, less repeatable and need to be supported differently than clock processes. Rather than focusing on efficiency, these processes are all about effectiveness; value and quality are our nouns here. To get the most out of a cloud process, we need to spend our highest value resources here and make sure they are supported with the right tools and skills.

Let’s take a design process as an example. Damien Newman’s illustration is a perfect depiction of the design process as a cloud process: it isn’t fixed or rigid, is a bit different every time, and will be more clear once complete, despite the lack of predictability or transparency at the outset. To get the most out of the design process, the designers need to be supported, not directed. Support comes in the way of the right training, the best tools for the job, access to information and knowledge, and some innate skill.

When I set out to optimize processes, pinning down the clocks and the clouds is a great approach. A lot of the major initiatives I see in Government around “Business Process Re-engineering” and the like pour all of the effort into moving boxes and arrows around a map until everyone is happy. Sadly, deleting steps and streamlining approvals will only get you so far. To develop and implement a process that is truly effective and efficient, you need to look at each box and each arrow on that map and make the most of everyone one of them.

Ask yourself: “Is this step a clock or a cloud, and what can you do to make it as successful as possible?”

Kellen Greenberg can be reached at greenberg@systemscope.com.


Kellen is a dynamic consultant, who excels at analysing how people, information and technology work together. As Director of Government Service Excellence, Kellen is focused on helping the Government of Canada solve the complex problems related to serving Canadians. This is done with a focus on effective and strategic use of the web, integrating with other channels such as telephone, in-person, social media and mobile platforms. His strength is bringing clarity to complex situations, and Kellen achieves this through his skills in facilitation, change management, process design and creative problem solving.


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