Strategies for dealing with IT complexity: part 5

Fourth cure: Continuous improvement required. Defeating complexity is not something that can be done with a quick fix.

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It can be tempting to try to buy your way out of complexity by outsourcing as much of your IT as you can get away with or by adopting big-ticket platforms from any one of a hundred vendors that will swear they can solve all your problems.

"We went ERP in 2000. It simplified our landscape by getting rid of legacy systems. We cleared out the old and brought in the new," recalls Anthony Bosco, CIO of engineering and facilities management firm Day & Zimmermann. Bosco believes that having a fairly closed technology system or platform encourages simplicity because it discourages the addition of single-point technologies.

However, enterprises have multiple needs, which means they will need multiple systems. And when adding technologies is necessary, you get added complexity, Bosco concedes, especially where they duplicate some of each other's processes. "It worked for a while," he adds, but the complexity started creeping back as the business's new needs required new technologies not anticipated by the ERP developers. "The ERP systems of today are the legacy of tomorrow," Bosco sums up.

He's handling this conundrum by tying each platform to a specific set of business needs, such as ERP for financial management and e-commerce for online transactions. He enforces a disciplined set of links among them to prevent complexity caused by use of duplicate processes.

A seductively easy fix for complexity is to hand over your technology to someone else. That's a bad idea, says Bernard "Bud" Mathaisel, CIO of software outsourcing provider Achievo. When a company is stable, says Mathaisel, it's more efficient and costs less to manage well-designed key infrastructure, such as data centres, in-house. Outsourcing makes sense when a company is in transition, such as during a merger, or in a period of high growth, and you don't have the human or management resources available. "That's worth the premium cost," he says.

Outsourcing, unfortunately, may not reduce complexity so much as shift it, notes John Baschab, president of management services at consultancy Technisource: "Outsourcing turns a technical challenge into a management one."

And outsourcing per se won't fix overly complex subsystems. Sounding an ironic note, Ramesh Dorairaj, head of application management services at Mindtree Consulting, says that "offshoring merely arbitrages inefficiency at a lower cost."

Some organisations follow a cyclical approach to dealing with complexity. Every five years or so, they embark on a simplification effort to reset the technology base to something that can be used as a platform for future growth. In theory, this can work, especially for industries that have boom-and-bust cycles; the bust times are when you can make the investments for the next boom period.

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