Have you noticed how one word can suddenly become pre-eminent in the IT industry? In the 1980s everyone talked about ergonomics. In the 1990s there were times when everything was open. Then there was the time where the industry put the letter “e” before every word. More recently you could not see an IT advert without some reference to agility or infrastructure in it. I mention all this because after a series of visits to CIOs in Auckland and Wellington I have a premonition that the word “simple” will soon be the buzz. The word came up in a number of these conversations. My feeling was that it reflected a counter-reaction to a previous tendency for ICT to delight in complex perfectionism. There once was a time when it seemed the objective of the industry was to highlight to outsiders how little they comprehended the intricacies of ICT. The underlying message seemed to be: “Leave it to the experts”. Today the reality is that business is not quite so easygoing. If it appears too complex then many executives imagine someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. I strongly suspect that it is such conclusions that have led organisations into the arms of the outsourcers.
In many ways I equate simple computing as a response to such outsourcing pressures. If vendors can convince executives that the answers to their ICT problems are simple then CIOs are left with no choice but to respond in similar language. Vendors of course are masters of selling and lesson one in every sales manual is the KISS principle or keep it simple, stupid. This stresses that, however complex a solution, it needs to be articulated in a way that others can comprehend.
The challenge for many CIOs is that simplicity sometimes runs counter to their own professionalism. IT's challenges are frequently complex. Take for example business intelligence projects. More often than not they require a lot of unglamorous behind-the-scenes work on agreeing to data definitions and cleansing imprecise records. Yet all business wants to do is to interrogate the data to answer key questions. How do users explain the time required before users will have that luxury?
From my observations, there are two tactics successful CIOs deploy to overcome these challenges. Firstly, it is important to break projects down into smaller chunks that get some runs on the board more swiftly. One CIO in InTEP always makes a point of having some high profile short-term project on the go at any one time. He feels that these satisfy a natural business impatience for results. Secondly, I reckon CIOs need to seek analogies to help users understand their challenges. For example the task of data definitions could be compared to the challenge of defining what someone means when they talk about football. Until you do that you cannot answer a question on how many people in New Zealand play football.
There is another aspect to simple computing. It is to avoid using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The all-embracing comprehensive solution may be the ideal one. Yet in a dynamic and turbulent business world the time, cost and energy required to deliver might well be inappropriate. In the spirit of the 80/20 rule, near enough could well be good enough. The end solution may be imperfect and alien to the professionalism of many CIOs. However, in many instances businesses are usually able to live with them. After all they are paying the money.
For my own part, I see the simple concept as a step in the right direction. It ensures ICT projects are understood by the business. It addresses a need to recognise how ICT investments are benefiting the organisation. It represents a pragmatic avoidance by CIOs of a pursuit for technological nirvana. It is about aligning IT to the business drivers, the number one issue currently identified by New Zealand CIOs. All in all, I have little doubt that we shall be hearing a lot more about simple computing in the years ahead.
Peter Hind is a consultant for IDC and assists the Australian Computer Society in policy developments. He also heads the InTEP CIO gatherings in New Zealand and Australia. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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