By Ria Roy

Can we offer a pattern language for improving performance within organizations? Would it be possible to borrow the ethos from Christopher Alexander’s book The Pattern Language (1977), a piece of work considered seminal within the world of architecture?

Pattern Language: A Brief Overview

An architect by profession, Christopher Alexander was “disaffected with modern architectural practice, argued that a rigid design process had led to the prevalence of impractical solutions” (Mahemoff & Johnston, 1998). Alexander’s pattern language was practical, distilled from his planning and building efforts and suggested “you can use it to work with your neighbors, to improve your town and neighborhood. You can use it to design a house for yourself, with your family; or to work with other people to design an office or a workshop or a public building like a school. And you can use it to guide you in the actual process of construction” (Alexander, 1977).

Alexander’s solution comprised 253 patterns of recurring problems in urban architecture (Borchers, 2000). The goal of pattern language was to enable inhabitants to design their environments (Borchers, 2000). A pattern could contribute to increased reuse, but the biggest gains are realized when patterns are carefully combined (Mahemoff & Johnston, 1998). Pattern languages provide “laymen with a vocabulary to express their ideas and designs, and to discuss them with professionals (Borchers, 2000, p.1). 

Patterns in Pattern Language

One of the features of pattern language is the “coherence of the created whole” (Alexander, 1977, 1999). To grasp the collection of 253 patterns as a whole, Alexander (1977) explains the purpose is to communicate that each pattern is connected to other patterns that enables one to create an “infinite variety of combinations” (p. xi). And, the problem and solution of each pattern are presented in a way that allows one to judge it and to modify it without losing its central essence. Solutions were presented “in a very general and abstract way–so that you can solve the problem for yourself, in your own way, by adapting it to your preferences, and the local conditions at the place where you are making it” (p. xiii).

The Philosophy in Pattern Language

No pattern is an isolated entity. It can exist only to the extent it is supported by other patterns. It says that when you build a thing it cannot be built in isolation, but it also repairs the world around and within it; thus, making the larger world at that place more coherent and more whole.

Pattern Language in Performance Improvement: A Proposal

Would it be feasible for us to thread the same philosophy around performance not only for the individual worker but also for within teams and across teams separated by functions, geographies, cultures, and so on? To not have performance improvement confined within the boundaries of an organization but to extend the language of performance improvement to percolate down to civic duties and scale it up to economies so that they can perform? Can a pattern language in performance improvement aid us not only in bridging functional silos but facilitate collaboration and contribution to domains such as economic development, environment, and more?

Thus, can we borrow from Alexander’s (1977) pattern language to not merely improve performance within the microcosm of our problem domain but also enable the world around and within it to improved performance and attainment of performance opportunities? Can we change the language of performance improvement from transactional to transformational?


Alexander, C. (1977). A pattern language. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Alexander, C. (1999). The origins of pattern theory: The future of the theory, and the generation of a living world. IEEE Software, 70-82.

Borchers, J. O. (2000). A pattern approach to interaction design. International conference on designing interactive systems (pp. 1-9). New York, NY: ACM Press.

Mahemoff, M. J., & Johnston, L. J. (1998). Principles for a usability-oriented pattern language. In P. Calder & B. Thomas (Eds.), OZCHI ’98 Proceedings (pp. 132–139). Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Press.

About the Author
The creator and monthly contributor of the Performance Xpress column on Rethinking, Revisiting, and Reimagining Performance Improvement, Ria Roy is currently a doctoral student in instructional technology at Indiana University Bloomington with a minor in business with an emphasis on strategy. Her experiences have been in areas of strategic development, setting up business units, commercial analytics and decision support, new product planning, and consulting, primarily in industries such as IT/ITES and pharmaceuticals. She holds an MBA in management information system, an MS in human factors in information design, and an MS in training and development. Her research interests lie in performance technology, development of the field of performance technology and performance improvement, organization design, innovation, and the study of customer centricity as a performance enabler.