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Ironically, as Accenture CIO Modruson notes, "Complex things tend to be easier to design and deploy." Many enterprises justify Rube Goldberg-type systems by saying they need them now and promising themselves that they'll clean up the technology later. But "later never happens," Modruson says dolefully. Strong central governance can prevent that "let the future worry about it" mentality. "Organisations that have effective IT governance by and large have lower levels of IT complexity," notes Gartner's McDonald.

That's why CIOs and their business partners must have strong governance "about what really impacts our customer, with business a key part of that decision structure," says Michael Vincent, CIO of global financial services provider ING.

Having that fundamental business understanding-and a common view of it in both business and technology leaderships-provides the CIO with the ability to make decisions that prevent unnecessary complexity and also enables him to more accurately assess the costs and benefits of any desired technology. It enables him, Vincent says, to figure in the impact of complexity not just on deployment but also on maintenance and integration, which consumes about 70% of IT's budget.

It also allows him to gauge how a technology will affect future changes to both the business and the IT infrastructure. "This customer focus helps show which requests are too complex for the value provided," says Vincent.

Of course, CIOs are always under pressure to respond quickly to business's urgent priorities, and an IT leader will inevitably need to make some complexity trade-offs for truly critical demands. But you can't let that pressure subvert the principles of good governance.

"If we find ourselves living in a 'get it done' mode for extended periods, the red flag goes up," says Wal-Mart's Ford. By having a seat at the executive committee table, Ford can make sure the red flag is not ignored.

This joint IT-business approach to decision making should also extend to decisions on what technology products and services are purchased-even for technologies that the CIO is not directly responsible for managing, says John Petrey, CIO of financial services provider TD Banknorth.

"In some cases, a business unit might go out and contract for services such as Salesforce.com. That starts out as a silo with no messaging or integration with existing apps. But later, that messaging or integration becomes desirable and then the complexity factor for IT rises," Petrey says. What seemed like an isolated technology ends up needing to connect to core systems, requiring retrofit work.

The CIO's involvement in these outside-of-IT decisions can help ensure conformity to standards and architectures, says Petrey, reducing current or future complexity issues that could affect the business units, not just IT. "You want to look for the best fit to business needs and minimum complexity through the governance process," he says.

When evaluating the complexity implications of any business or IT effort, CIOs will need to accept, in some cases, more complexity than is ideal because of the business benefit, says Vincent. For example, ING is buying various transaction systems in its fast-growing Asian operations to handle a surge in demand. And although ING is re-architecting some of its global systems for more common processes and technology, the Asia business can't grow if it has to mark time while that effort is completed. Vincent knows he'll need to rework the Asia operations eventually, but that will cost ING less than the revenues it might miss by waiting.

Understanding this trade-off up front ensures that the price of the complexity-add is apparent early on, preparing the ground for later investments that will be needed to clean things up.

In ING's approach, complexity factors are fundamental to the joint business-IT decision-making process, not only alerting business to the price to be paid for its requests, but also helping IT avoid overcomplicating what it delivers.