We need to rethink our approach to IT systems to stop them making the world an ever more complex place, says Colin Beveridge.
Variety might be the spice of life, but it could also be the answer to making IT systems less complex without continuing the trend of throwing ever more powerful technology into the mix in an attempt to make things simple.
They say that variety is the spice of life and I am inclined to believe them, especially since IT is adding huge dollops of new variety to our daily regimes.
We all live in an already complex world that is becoming ever more complicated by the day, as previously unrelated elements are suddenly brought together, into unforeseen, and therefore unplanned, relationships – through the application of new technology.
Each of these new interactions adds to the overall variety of our world and brings interesting challenges to those of us who are tasked with harnessing the consequent variety into manageable “systems”.
The first step we must take is to recognise one of the greatest paradoxes of computing that, despite the oft-stated intention of using technology to make things simpler, in reality the application of IT always complicates the status quo ante – although the incremental complexity may not always be immediately apparent to the observer.
But just because you cannot see something does not mean that it is not there.
After all, I have never seen the gas that we call oxygen but I am obviously pleased that it does exist, quietly and invisibly, and that there is enough for all of us to enjoy, as the cycles of nature constantly replenish our vital resource.
Notwithstanding the interference of mankind, the forces of nature have evolved over countless millennia to achieve an apparently satisfactory equilibrium between the consumption and production of oxygen. Corrective action may be required from time to time but for the most part this is completely imperceptible, when measured over a relatively short period.
I believe, however, that we need to evolve similar management mechanisms to cope with the potential problem of exponentially increasing variety/complexity.
This is not a predicament that will go away of its own accord and our current strategy of simply throwing ever more powerful technology into the mix only exacerbates the underlying situation, by introducing even more variety to the equation.
So how can we tackle this conundrum? If our so-called solutions only contribute to the problem how can we manage the increasing complexity?
The answer, in my opinion, is by a radical change in the way we approach system design.
Most of our professional life is currently spent seeking ways of simplifying process through the successful application of technology, always trying to make things simpler, in blissful ignorance of the fundamentally awesome power of variety.
We are conditioned to observe the Kiss principle (Keep it simple, stupid) and to look for quick wins wherever possible and yet we never seem to really overcome the complexity of situations because, more often than not, we do not actually eradicate variety, we simply displace it – and too often amplify its effects in the process of displacement.
I believe that we need to take a more mature, holistic approach and recognise that complex problems will always require equally complex solutions to be really effective.
There is no silver bullet that can give us that eagerly hoped-for but invariably elusive easy ride.
As long as we persist with the mentality of depending on Moore’s Law of ever-increasing computing power to bail us out, we will always struggle against that great natural force of variety.
If you do not believe me, why not check out one of the fundamental principles of Cybernetics: Ashby’s Law of requisite variety, which states that only variety can absorb variety. I did and it has certainly influenced the way that I now approach the use of IT solutions.
Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was first published in September 2004