The complexity of IT that threatens to overwhelm the world's 11 million technology professionals also has the potential to make a positive impact on the industry.
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Instead of looking for the silver bullet to simplify IT operations, companies should learn to manage complexity -- mostly because there's no avoiding it.
That was the take-home message from Monday's keynote address at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in San Francisco, which drew 3,000 people.
"Complexity is cyclical," said Colleen Young, analyst and vice president for Gartner Inc. "As one problem gets easier, another gets harder. The new normal keeps changing."
Greg Sieg, vice president of enterprise and manufacturing systems for Temple-Inland Inc., a $4.5 billion cardboard packaging manufacturer in Austin, Texas, heard plenty that rang true.
New to Temple-Inland, Sieg joined the company when it was five years into an ERP implementation. "The fact that the ERP is relatively static and the business is changing means we have to figure out how to adapt without customizing the ERP." And that has proved a challenge, Sieg said.
"Our building products side has garnered a lot of measurable business value out of a customized application for taking customer orders. We have evaluated looking at using ERP to replace it and move it up a different level of technology. They weren't interested. It wasn't even close. We are back to building another custom application."
Young and her colleague Ray Paquet, an analyst and vice president for Gartner, started with the premise that adding complexity generally brings value. "Operating systems have clearly gotten more complex, and the result is improved availability, functionality and quality," Young said.
But needs change over time. For example, IT departments successfully reduced the cost of providing PCs to large workforces by standardizing the equipment. The standard configurations that simplified life for IT, however, took away control away from individuals -- and sometimes their creativity and productivity as well.
While IT leaders cannot "let freedom reign," the goal is not to control by locking down systems, but to enable the end user, Paquet said.
Value inflection point
The first step in managing complexity is plotting when it shifts from adding business value to bringing negative returns. Plotting the "value inflection point" is not trivial.
All constituents are not created equal: One person's complexity is another person's simplicity. And some constituents have more clout than others.
"You have to accept a solution that reflects the political realities," Paquet said.
The session resonated with Thomas Maier, assistant vice chancellor for information technology with the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.
"This is a basic premise I've had for a long time. IT is really a social science. It's about people," Maier said. "Everybody who deals with IT needs to take biology, because IT is all about how complex systems behave. We talk about overdoing complexity -- Darwin called that natural selection."
Maier was glad to hear Gartner challenge the traditional view that IT professionals want control at all costs. "What we really want is manageability." What we need to do is adjust how we provide the technology of that business, rather than saying the only way we can deal with this is by systems lockdown, and reduce the ability of our organizations to grow and prosper."Another really important point they brought out is trying to deal with the point of view of the individual, the observer. If you try to deal with IT from one perspective will miss the boat. Their description of IT as multi-faceted is one of the lessons.