ITxpo Keynote: managing complexity

The opening Gartner keynote is a tad condescending in the opening (who told Gartner’s CEO to cite “portal software” as an example of complex new IT challenges?), but quickly gets more interesting and starts delivering some insights, including: a quote attributed to Ezra Pound (“Man is an overcomplicated organism. If he is doomed to extinction it will come from a want of simplicity”—source?) and a citation of the Law of Requisite Variety. Complexity is a bell curve; claims there is an inflection point beyond
which if you make a system more complex value diminishes rather than increasing. They
suggest a consideration for review and acceptance of technology: “positive return on complexity.”

They make a very strong case that one way to mediate complexity is through process. Sounds good to me—that’s what ITIL is all about. Also useful: consider where to place complexity: away from the users. Don’t make IT’s life easier at the expense of the end user experience.

There’s a tradeoff between business needs and managing complexity. Also deep relationship between complexity and change management. Framework for understanding n-order change (this is when people start leaving): understand interaction between cultural systems (org structure, people) and technology systems (technology and tasks). First order change: tasks affected. Second order change: tasks and people. Third order change: affects every single variable, e.g. ERP. Fourth order: affects partners, customers, and other external connections.

Here comes the sale: there is a Gartner decision framework that helps you think across the strategic issues in managing complex new projects.

(Aside: wonder if there is a point to be made that blogging got adopted and is a profoundly transformative technology precisely because it’s less complex than other knowledge management tools?)

Managing complexity checklist:

  1. Standardization: can reduce complexity or increase capacity to manage more complexity. One consideration: number of vendors and products, but be careful of lock-in.
  2. Automation: from the traditional (adding additional tools to replace human labor) to augmentation (e.g. expert systems). Can hide complexity, but frequently not from IT; also raises the bar for IT staffing and pay.
  3. Best practices:
    1. Don’t do everything at once.
    2. Buy what you need, not what you might need.

Remember process! This is the connection between the organization and technical complexity.