The Three Dimensions of IT Complexity

By Al Nugent

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Every CIO survey I read these days shows that the vast majority of business executives recognize the pivotal role technology plays in business transformation. CIO’s understand this too, with the more progressive evolving the role from the “Mr. or Ms. Fix-It” of the technology backroom, to a blended executive. One who combines technology savvy with business acumen to not just align IT, but actually integrate it within the business fabric.

This is all good news for our industry, but with a typical organization dedicating 80% of the IT spend to just “keeping the lights on” or maintaining the status quo, are these transformational goals ever achievable, or are they just pipe dreams?

Transformational goals are achievable. However, there is a heritage of IT complexity that impedes our ability to reach those goals. IT systems are growing in complexity at such a dizzying pace that the IT professionals who support them can’t keep up. As a result, business leaders don’t believe the IT function can deliver enough agility in an environment of accelerating business change.

The reality is business processes today are almost all dependent on technology. As such, IT organizations are increasingly being held accountable, so much so that the management of complexity is no longer a technical challenge, it’s a business imperative.

The first step in addressing the complexity challenge is to admit that you have a problem. There really is no way to stop the sprawl of technology, so we must recognize complexity as a significant issue, and by extension how it affects the business. Unfortunately, IT complexity doesn’t come prepackaged. It comes in various forms, and in order to tame it, we must understand the challenge across three dimensions. As the often quoted Sun Tzu said in the Art of War – “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt.”

Dimension 1 – IT is a Tower of Babel

IT isn’t a simple structure with a unifying language, but rather, a complex array of networks, systems, protocols and applications from a wide range of manufacturers. What’s perplexing too is that while technologies are constantly being added and exploited to enrich the business processes we support, nothing ever seems to go away.

It’s obvious that as we add more technologies we’ll have more to manage, but it’s the way that the technologies are being employed that increases the challenge. Virtualization for example has matured beyond just supporting server consolidation to actually relieving capacity problems. That’s of course a great opportunity to increase system efficiencies, but it introduces even more complexity.

Dimension 2 – IT is Always-On

The way we use the internet today is vastly different than five years ago, and will be monumentally different as we move forward. In an age of mass consumerization, telecommuting and the mobile workforce, customers have become far more selective, demanding the information they need anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Consider for example the management of email. Today, we manage the delivery of email via internet-enabled software packages such as Microsoft Outlook. But moving forward, the generation Y consumer will want email delivered to their game console or professional networking application (if you don’t believe me, just observe your kids). These models will persist and again introduce levels of complexity that traditional management methods will never address.

Dimension 3 – IT is “Rich”

Rich content such as streaming video requires huge amounts of bandwidth, storage and redundancy. While today’s consumers are satisfied with downloading pre-recorded movies and podcasts to their iPod Classics, tomorrow’s customer will demand live content delivered to any number of mobile devices. All this means more complexity—not only multiple devices, but multiple content formats to manage.

Embracing Complexity

Technologies will only increase in complexity as we move forward. This is not necessarily a bad thing—the challenge of delivering superior levels of service in ever-changing environments is a fundamentally complex issue and can only be solved by sophisticated technology. Smart business-IT professionals will recognize this and actually harness complexity as a change agent to drive new and exciting disruptive business models.

Effective ways to address the complexity challenge include:

§       Process automation – The more we can standardize processes irrespective of technology, the more we can make things repeatable, and repeatability will drive efficiency improvements. Best practices such as the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) are great starting points for standardizing processes and building a foundation upon which to automate.

§       Introduce more technology – This sounds like an oxymoron, but putting technology controls in place can actually help manage complexity. The best approach is to start small and use this as a rule of thumb: if you can’t monitor what you have, you’ll never be able to manage it, and, if you can’t manage it, you’ll never control it.

§       Manage services, not technology functions – Organizations have been talking about service provisioning and management for some time, but they don’t have a service-based culture, mentality or mindset. Organizations need to understand what the business wants and what technology provides, and then build an abstraction layer between the two.

If you can isolate your consumers from elements that provide the service, then those elements can be changed easily no matter how complex they are. Don’t be fooled though; the notion of abstraction isn’t achievable through piecemeal integrations at a data layer and flimsy visualization. It requires more robust methods of aggregating technology components and management methods into a collection of unified services from which we can ascertain the true cost, quality and value of what we deliver.

As you put in place these strategies to manage and exploit the inevitable wave of IT complexity, don’t be afraid of publishing your successes. Explain in clear terms, not just what you manage and how well you do it, but how IT is contributing to the bottom line and stimulating business growth. A good example of this can be found at http://www.ca.com/us/products/collateral.aspx?cid=149992.

Al Nugent is the Chief Technology Officer for CA, Inc. and is no stranger to managing IT complexity. In his career he has been CIO at AMRE, and CTO at a variety of companies including Novell, Xerox and Vectant, and he served as consulting chief technologist and chief software architect at BellSouth.