Strategies for dealing with IT complexity: part 4

Third cure: Default to simplicity. Going back to basics can often make things easier for innovation in the future.

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"It's harder to do simple, but it's better to do simple," says Accenture's Modruson, because the more difficult task of simplifying the design up front results in easier implementation down the road.

In 2005, Motorola's Morrison says, she had 60 customer data models. That made application and business process integration extremely difficult. Then the business requested an accounts receivable project, and Morrison used it as a driver to simplify those 60 data models.

"We established a global common customer master data model; we didn't make it optional. All projects now use it as a blueprint," she says. "The result is we now work on one customer master; we modify and maintain one, as opposed to a mountain of them. It's just a massive reduction in work and overhead, and an improvement in agility."

It's easy to end up with unnecessary complexity due to technological and business-process diversity, notes Fifth Third Bancorp CIO Raymond Dury. "Each additional technology wasn't a tipping point; it was just one more thing. But at some point you realise you've reached a tipping point where simplifying is a benefit."

"Mature companies need disciplined teams and change controls to minimise the risk [of increasing complexity]. That's why they've failed in the past; they don't look at the lifecycle," says Wal-Mart's Ford. "All of a sudden, they hit the wall."

But driving to simplicity can be tricky. It's hard to get resources to revamp older systems or to pay for the initial architectural efforts. And the work can take years. "It can't take too long; otherwise people will seek exceptions. So you need to get resources fast," Morrison warns. Some of those resources need to come from your internal savings, some in the form of business investments. Internal savings typically come from two areas: efficiencies and vendor management.

CIOs can achieve efficiencies-and reduce IT complexity along with costs-through a variety of complementary tactics, including disciplined data management, employing change-control techniques to their application development and integration efforts, using Six Sigma techniques for post-deployment defect management, increasing automation, deploying cost-savings technologies such as virtualisation, outsourcing some technologies, "ruthlessly" standardising (using Accenture's Modruson's adverb), consolidating duplicate technologies and retiring older systems. "When you do things rationally, you can actually cut the budget," says Special Olympics' Mendes, as he discovered when, as CIO of PBS a few years ago, he cut the interconnection asked from the federal government from $177m to $120m (£85.8m-£58.2m) while, he says, introducing new technology that substantially improved services.

The key area to focus on internally is your data architecture, says Motorola's Morrison. "If you focus on master data-customer, pricing, bills of materials and so on-and get those very defined, the number of applications you have will become less of a complexity problem," she maintains.

That's because much of the integration effort across applications involves managing all the point-to-point data transformations when applications interact. Having a consistent data architecture eliminates much of that effort by allowing one to use repeatable processes at the integration layer. That results in both immediate and long-term savings that can help the CIO make other efficiency and simplification investments.

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